Sometimes, music requires more than merely combined star power to make it work, as Watch the Throne, the eagerly-awaited alliance between Jay-Z and Kanye West, seems to confirm.
Too often here their complacent, back-slapping laxity leaves tracks floundering, and most cuts rely on a single notable line or sentiment to pull them through. And in some cases, they pay what might be called the Puff Daddy Penalty, by using samples so familiar they overwhelm the track. Having built an arrangement around a prominent chunk of Otis Redding singing "Try a Little Tenderness", the two rappers' contributions are summarily obliterated by that massive soul presence – though at least they give due props by titling the piece "Otis"; and even swaddling Nina Simone in vocoder melisma fails to diminish her impact on "New Day".
The best track is surely the opener "No Church in the Wild", whose deep, detuned twang groove, over a marching organ motif, is the most striking music on the album, promising rather more than the rest of the record is able to deliver. Both this and the other stand-out track, "Made In America", feature assured vocal refrains from Frank Ocean, while the two rappers muse over familiar themes of loyalty, sexuality and maternal solidarity.
Elsewhere, the main interests are, predictably, careerism and vulgar excess, with the ritual litany of Rolex, Maybach and Gucci now joined by Basquiat and Warhol, Jay-Z apparently keen to display his taste in wall furniture, while also taking a pop at what he considers the racist tendencies of the art world: "Why all the pretty icons always all white?" he wonders. "Put some coloured girls in the Moma."
A dissonant guitar riff and quirky girl-group refrain underpins the pair's fretting about black-on-black violence in "Murder To Excellence", while a similar theme receives less empathy in "Who Gon Stop Me", Jay-Z offering a "middle finger to my old life" as he preens about how he "Graduated from the corner/ And I did all this without a diploma" – suggesting disdain for those less able to effect that manoeuvre. Likewise, in "Why I Love You", his paranoia about ingrates and haters finds him huffing dismissively how "I tried to teach niggas how to be kings/ And all they ever wanted to be was soldiers".
Kanye, by comparison, is more sympathetic, albeit typically hyperbolic: "This is something like the holocaust/ Millions of our people lost," he laments about ghetto life; and he's also more open and vulnerable on a personal level, worrying in "The Joy" about how "I still hear the ghosts of the kids I never had".
But, outflanked by the samples they chose to borrow, Watch the Throne is more notable for its general lack of impact. Neither as compulsively neurotic as Eminem, as languidly characterful as Snoop Dogg, nor as furiously articulate as Nas, the raps here represent a pretty mediocre, cardboard kind of throne, truth be told.
DOWNLOAD THIS: No Church In the Wild; Made In America; Who Gon Stop Me
Album: VARIOUS ARTISTS, Johnny Boy Would Love This...A Tribute to John Martyn (Hole in the Rain/Liaison)
Tribute albums are always hit-and-miss affairs, but this is better than most; though it would be improved by being trimmed to the first disc, loaded as it is with the more inventively simpatico interpretations. Beck's "Stormbringer" is sumptuously bedecked in mellotron strings, while Skye (Morcheeba) Edwards's "Solid Air" is aptly suspended amidst iridescent twinkles of guitar. Butch Vig's Emperors of Wyoming, however, unearth darker portents than expected in "Bless The Weather". Vocally, Clarence Fountain's gospel delivery of "Glorious Fool" is beautifully weighted, while Paolo Nutini locks perfectly into Martyn's languid resignation on "One World". On the downside, Snow Patrol subject "May You Never" to an ill-fitting Elbow-esque epiphany on the second CD.
DOWNLOAD THIS: Stormbringer; One World; Glorious Fool; Solid Air
Album:TODDLA T, Watch Me Dance (Ninja Tune)
Widely considered the next big crossover star of British dance music, Sheffield's Tom "Toddla T" Bell perhaps lacks the personality to become a household name. That is not to say that Watch Me Dance isn't enjoyable, but it is undeniable that its character is determined by the guest vocalists for whom Bell serves as backroom producer, such as Ms Dynamite and Roots Manuva. The latter is rakishly imperious on the title track, riding its brash, rolling swing with a rodeo swagger, while the scuttling electro-dancehall twitches of "Badman Flu" and "Streets So Warm" provide appropriate settings for some feisty ragga rapping. Bell's subtler side is best displayed behind Shola Ama on "Take It Back", whose stalking shuffle-groove has a little "Funky Drummer" flourish to it, allied to a piano vamp that's pure Sister Bliss.
DOWNLOAD THIS: Watch Me Dance; Take It Back; Streets So Warm
Album: FIONN REGAN, 100 Acres Of Sycamore (Heavenly)
For some reason, Fionn Regan has retreated from the Dylanesque folk-rock swagger of last year's The Shadow Of An Empire into a strings-laced acoustic folk format that is less forgiving of his shortcomings in melody and delivery. Written as a song-cycle of "a couple dancing between the gutter and the chandelier", it was recorded live to tape with all the players in one room. While this might have instilled warmth and clarity, it has also torpedoed the dynamism vital to any story. The result is a lack of narrative arc, emotional progress or even a temporary alteration of momentum: bereft of melodies or variegated vocal inflection, the songs pass in a blur of melancholy. The occasional line, like "the dust of her affection has not settled yet", pokes out like a half-buried root. A big disappointment.
DOWNLOAD THIS: Sow Mare Bitch Vixen; 100 Acres Of Sycamore
Album: LADI6, The Liberation Of... (Question Music)
A New Zealander with Samoan roots working with Kiwi and German co-producers in Berlin, hip-hop soul chanteuse Ladi6 has been compared to Erykah Badu, though the smoky touches in her delivery more accurately recall an older tradition of jazz singers, notably Peggy Lee. But it's the combination of that jazz-tinged rap-sung delivery with Sepalot's skeletal hi-hat and snare beat, flecked with dabs of electronic noise and horns, that produces the Santogold-style magic of "Burn With Me"; and the way she audaciously inhabits producer Parks' infectious handclap groove that gives "Bang Bang" its irresistible impact. Those, along with the catchy single "Like Water", are the prime cuts on an album which boasts no shortage of assertive expressions of self-determination and solidarity.
DOWNLOAD THIS: Bang Bang; Like Water; Burn With Me
Album: NERO, Welcome Reality
As they have collaborated with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra on the modestly titled "Dubstep Symphony", we perhaps shouldn't be surprised that the production duo Nero's debut is packaged like a movie soundtrack and bookended with unbearable droning synths. This is the unlovely offspring of dubstep and ELP-style prog-rock with all the virtuosity wrung out, leaving just pretensions and flatulent, fanfaring synths. "My Eyes" chugs along, punctuated with tedious dropouts and returns; "Fugue State" features pseudo-classical motifs assailed by a giant Hoover. When they chance upon a half-decent vocal melody, in "Scorpions", they strangle it with scudding synths. Do people actually dance to such laboured, galley-slave rhythms? If not, what's the point?
DOWNLOAD THIS: Must Be The Feeling; Scorpions
Album: JOE ELY, Satisfied At Last (Rack'Em)
Contrary to the title, Joe Ely's customary wanderlust seems in full effect. The opening "The Highway Is My Home" adopts a typically urgent manner, the country-funk cabal of organ, clavinet and guitar lending pace and edge to a tale of how romantic betrayal plunged a foolish believer to his downfall. Even the title track itself has a deceptive slant, explaining how a drifter's wanderings weren't to prove any point, but simply to realise his inner nature. "Live Forever" and "Roll Again" treat life's uncertainties with a lilting norteño accordion and country-rock reggae setting respectively, the former less uncomfortably. But Ely's weatherbeaten charm is perhaps best deployed depicting rural stasis in "Not That Much Has Changed".
DOWNLOAD THIS: The Highway Is My Home; Not That Much Has Changed; Satisfied At Last