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Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Jay-Z & Kanye West, The iTunes 'tax' on 'Watch the Throne'

When two of the biggest names in hip-hop – Jay-Z and Kanye West -- collaborate on an album, is there any way it can live up to the hype? Likely not, and that’s the burden “Watch the Throne” (Roc-A-Fella Records/Roc Nation/Def Jam Recordings) faces.

The two have done great work in the past. As a fledgling producer, West delivered soul-fired beats that underscored Jay-Z’s 2001 release, “The Blueprint,” a hip-hop classic. Now the two operate more or less as equals, with West having a hand in most of the production and Jay-Z taking a slightly larger share of the vocals on “Watch the Throne.” In many ways it’s an album about mutual admiration.

Both artists have developed distinct, not necessarily complementary personas. Jay-Z is about imperious flow, bridging his gritty past life on the streets with his current status as a cultural tastemaker and business mogul. He operates at arm’s length from the listener, a self-styled godfather who never seems to break a sweat as he rhymes rings around his inferior would-be competition. He no longer needs to surprise us, he simply needs to file annual updates reminding us that, after all, he’s Jay-Z and you’re not.

West is more desperate, transparent, awkward, vulnerable; he’s not nearly the MC that Jay-Z is, but still he aims for the stars, often shooting well beyond traditional hip-hop subject matter and production in his desire to make an impression. He is the one more likely to surprise and enrage these days, which makes him one of the most compelling figures in contemporary pop.

But on “Watch the Throne,” West must also defer, and this makes for a sometimes difficult partnership. The production is often stellar, favoring West’s soul-dusties sensibility, with snippets of James Brown, Otis Redding and Nina Simone. But it rarely takes the kind of chances West routinely takes on his solo albums. Instead, the idea is to create an album that lives up to its royal billing, a gilded collection of potential hits with lots of hooks and plenty of branding opportunities.

Come Friday, however, the standard edition of the album will be available to all retailers -- physical and digital -- but the deluxe CD edition will be given solely to Best Buy for an additional 10 days. Fans who can sit tight for a few days will have cheaper options, as Best Buy is currently listing the standard CD for $9.99 and the expanded edition, which has the same extra tracks as the iTunes version, at $12.99.

Album review: Jay-Z and Kanye West's 'Watch the Throne'

The iTunes home page immediately directs potential buyers to the expanded $14.99 configuration of the album without making it clear that a slightly cheaper version exists. Retail exclusives have long been a source of contention in the music business, and the arguments against remain the same -- they limit consumer choice by playing favorites and drive prices higher.

Back in 2008, when Best Buy exclusively sold Gun N' Roses' "Chinese Democracy," Michael Kurtz, the driving force behind the indie-retail marketing celebration that is Record Store Day, warned that exclusives would be bad for the consumer. "By eliminating competition, the prices of the CDs are going up," Kurtz said. "The biggest United States retailers are partnering with the biggest labels, driving the price up by not allowing competition."

Pricing for the iTunes exclusives is in the opposite direction of industry trends. Granted, iTunes has never engaged in the extreme discounting of its competitor Amazon, but the latter has been continually challenging the perception of what an album is worth, recently discounting Lady Gaga's "Born This Way" to 99 cents.

Complicating matters have been artists' views on the issue. When asked whether she thought her album was worth more than 99 cents, Lady Gaga told the Wall Street Journal that she had Amazon's back. "It’s invisible," she said. "It’s in space. If anything, I applaud a company like Amazon for equating the value of digital versus the physical copy, and giving the opportunity to everyone to buy music."

As of today, Amazon does not have "Watch the Throne" listed in its MP3 store, perhaps not wanting to tip its hand as to how it will price the album. Amazon, remember, will not have access to the expanded edition until Aug. 23. But it's likely safe to bet that the standard version of "Throne" will go for considerably less than the iTunes price of $11.99. For instance, when West released his "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy" in late 2010, Amazon quickly made available a coupon that allowed fans to purchase the $4.99 album for 99 cents.

Despite the maze of configurations and retail exclusives -- imagine a world where the film industry released separate editions of major movies to multiple theater chains -- "Watch the Throne" is still expected to have a solid opening. According to figures released in industry trade Billboard, "Watch the Throne" is on track to sell somewhere between 400,000 and 500,000 copies, which would give it the second largest opening of the year.

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