As far as superstar collaborations go, you can't top one between rap royalty Jay-Z and Kanye West. The pair are gearing up to release their first joint album, which could be the greatest collaboration in hip-hop yet.

We first heard about the collaboration in August, when Kanye West tweeted their intentions to release a five-track EP. Next we heard from West, as he partied with Jay-Z at the Marquee Nightclub in Las Vegas on New Year's Eve, that the project, now a full-length album, Watch the Throne, would arrive in just a week. And now we know the album, which the pair went to the south of France to record in October, is definitely on the horizon, just five weeks away.

So excited are their avid fans that when 'H*A*M', the first single from the album, was posted on the dedicated Facebook page, the immense volume of traffic flocking to hear it crashed the site. Seven hours after it was first available, it had already been played more than 40,000 times.

So why are we so excited? Joint albums may be common in the rock world, but such hip-hop collaborations are a rarity. And the fact that both artists are superstars of the hip-hop world, counting 24 Grammys between them, makes this a most exciting prospect. On Billboard's list of the top artists of the past decade, Jay-Z came 10th, ranking as the fifth top solo male artist behind Eminem, 50 Cent, Nelly and Usher, while West was just behind him in sixth position, and the 15th artist overall.

Only last November, Kanye West released his album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which garnered five-star reviews from critics, and found itself well-positioned on the albums-of-the-year lists.

The pair are no strangers to working together: West produced some of Jay-Z's albums, and provided vocals alongside Rihanna on Jay-Z's song 'Run This Town', while Jay-Z returned the favour for West's 'So Appalled' on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, whose extravagant production 'H*A*M' recalls.

This first single pushes the production even further over the top, with the com­bination of a skittering synth beat running throughout and sinister operatic voices, topped with urgent strings reminiscent of the Chemical Brothers' 'Galvanize'. As ever with Kanye West releases of late, it's ambitious. And it's certainly compelling.

Beneath the ferocity of the OTT production is an authentic hip-hop track: egotistical rapping, championing machismo, superiority and hard-man posturing. It might signify a return to more authentic hip-hop for West, whose enjoyable 808s & Heartbreak album of 2008 was more conceptual and laden with auto-tune.

You wouldn't play 'H*A*M' at the family dinner table, such is its expletive-ridden language. And this listener finds its intensity and bizarre combination of beats, strings and operatic choir slightly overpowering. I'm not the only one: it's also drawing a mixed reaction from fans on the Facebook page. Still, the track cannot fail to make the listener pay attention, and on the basis of this single alone and its ambitious nature, keenly await the rest and feel sure that the forthcoming full album won't disappoint.

The editor of Q magazine, Paul Rees, who placed Jay-Z on the cover last year, is just as optimistic: "You'd have to say that Jay-Z has barely put a foot wrong in recent years and when he does collaborate – with the likes of Alicia Keys, Beyoncé and Rihanna – the results have tended to be outstanding. The only question you'd have about this one is whether Kanye West has enough in the tank to take in this as well as his last epic, and frankly bonkers, album. In any event, it has all the makings of a must-hear record." Their huge following can only keep on growing.

When stars collide

The Edge created a buzz about Sinead O'Connor before her first solo single was even released when he asked her to collaborate on his soundtrack to the film Captive in 1986; the haunting 'Heroine' was the standout track and remains a great O'Connor moment.

Elvis Costello's long-standing admiration for Burt Bacharach saw them write some cracking tunes together for Grace Of My Heart, the 1996 film loosely inspired by Carole King's life. They went on to expand the project into 1998's well-received album Painted From Memory.

Led Zep legend Robert Plant and bluegrass-country singer/fiddler Alison Krauss won five Grammys for their 2007 album Raising Sand. And, last year saw the fruits of not one but three big collaborative projects: San Patricio from The Chieftains and Ry Cooder; Dark Night of the Soul from uber-producer Danger Mouse and the late Mark 'Sparklehorse' Linkous; and Here Lies Love from David Byrne and Fatboy Slim. Olivia Doyle