Playing God
Jay-Z: The Black Album

in late 2003, Jay-Z released the highly anticipated The Black Album to much public discussion and debate. A good deal of the discussion centered around Jay-Z’s retirement from the game, leaving the rap world to fend for itself. Whether or not these claims were legitimate has yet to be seen. What we do know, though, is that the record received largely mixed reviews—two of which appeared on this website. But Jay-Z, in an ingenious, innovative step that will surely go on to be imitated by countless others, ensured his legacy forever by handing his music back over to his fans, releasing an acapella version of The Black Album for legions of DJs and potential remixers to pore over.

The first notable figure to take advantage of this was DJ Dangermouse, who paired the acapella Black Album up with various chopped tracks from The Beatles’ legendary White Album, not-so-cleverly titling the results The Grey Album. Dangermouse’s concoction became a sensation in a way that could only have happened in this day and age, blossoming into an overnight celebrity via downloading programs and webboard discussions. It wasn’t legal—and the Beatles’ people made sure the album would never hit the shelves—but that didn’t stop it from near-inconceivable popularity, being downloaded by over 200,000 people on Mardi Gras alone, the day publicized as Grey Tuesday.

The success of Dangermouse’s mash-up opened the floodgates for scores of imitators, some taking Jay’s vocals and building entirely new tracks around them, and some more literally taking the concept behind The Grey Album, matching Black up album-for-album with another (often titularly colored) album. It seemed like every week or two, another remix album would pop out, and after a while, they started to strain suspension of disbelief a bit—first the Black and Blue album, matching Jay up with alternative rockers Weezer’s Blue Album, then the Black on Black album, pairing it with Metallica’s album of the same name, and finally, The Slack Album, pitting The Black Album against Pavement’s lo-fi landmark Slanted and Enchanted.

Pop purists sneered at these, quickly growing tired of the concept and branding the wave of album-for-album matches as indie trend-hopping. But they missed the larger triumph behind these bizarre creations—finally, the music was being put back in the hands of the fans, and they were having a field day out on the pop playground. And for those who listened with a none-too-jaded ear, there were some worthy mash-ups among these albums. And for those still displeased with the gimmickry, there were plenty of fabulous all-new creations on remix albums like 9th Wonder’s The Black Remixes, Kevin Brown’s The Brown Album and Kardinal Offishall and Solitair’s The Black Jays Album.

So, after having rounded up almost 10 of these remix or mash-up albums (which is still barely 50% of those that exist, believe it or not), I put together an ideal version of The Black Album, keeping the original tracklisting but only a couple tracks from the original album. So, with no further delay, I present The Black Album: Triumph of the Fans.

1. “Intro” (from 9th Wonder’s The Black Remixes)
9th Wonder’s The Black Remixes album is probably the best of the original creations, and is represented on my Black Album with as many cuts as any version, including the original. One of these is his superior introduction, which previews the list of all-star producers that appear on the album, while providing a superior backing for Jay-Z’s introductory “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” analogy.

2. “December 4th” (from Dangermouse’s The Grey Album)
This one was really tough. Pretty much anyone who did a Black Album remix or mash-up appeared to put the most thought into this track, since it’s a highlight of almost all of them. I choose Dangermouse’s version for the sheer ingenuity of his main sample, the White Album’s “Mother Nature’s Son”, which matches the lyrical content (Jay-Z telling his backstory with occasional interjections from his mother) both thematically, and more surprisingly, musically. Perhaps the most impressive of all the mash-ups.

3. “What More Can I Say?” (from 9th Wonder’s The Black Remixes)
Not only is this version of “What More Can I Say?” infinitely superior to the original album version—with its triumphant “say it again” chant and exultant background yelps (worthy of Kanye’s “We Don’t Care”)—but it would arguably be the best song were it released on the original album. Not bad, considering the original was one of the weakest tracks on the album.

4. “Encore” (from DJ Lt. Dan’s Back to Basics)
DJ Lt. Dan took Jay-Z’s Black Album and pitted his vocals against a score of hip-hop classics, including Ice Cube’s “It Was a Good Day,” Jeru the Damaja’s “Come Clean” and Dr. Dre’s “Nuthin’ But a ‘G’ Thang.” The most successful of his mash-ups was this, Jay-Z’s “Encore” vs. Main Source’s 1991 lost-love classic “Looking at My Front Door.” It sounds 100% natural, the weeping melancholy of the music revealing a near-poignancy in Jay-Z’s triumphant bow-out. Bravo.

5. “Change Clothes” (original album track)
“Change Clothes” was the critically panned and lukewarmly received lead single from The Black Album, prompting all sorts of rants on the growing irrelevancy of The Neptunes. But for my money, it’s as good as anything on the album, and for some reason—perhaps due to the way the beat wraps itself around Pharrell’s falsetto on the chorus—the only track that the remixers had absolutely no success with, botching almost every attempt. So here’s the original. It’s great. Really.

6. “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” (original album track)
The album’s Timbaland-produced second single simply left no room for improvement—that beat is untouchable. Sassy, sleek and vicious, there’s no way anyone could better this. So it stands.

7. “Threat” (from Kardinal Offishall and Solitair’s The Black Keys Album)
“Threat” was maybe the worst song on the original album, with an unimpressive 9th Wonder beat and an incredibly grating old-man rant from god knows who interrupting the song. Kardinall Offishall and Solitair’s version regrettably keeps the old-man rant (“I’m so sinceeerrrr!!) but gives the beat a minimal, taut edge that gives the song the sense of dread so desperately lacking from the original.

8. “Only in a Moment of Clarity” (from Jay-Zeezer’s The Black and Blue Album)
OK, so skeptics might not take so well to this one, but honestly, it works beautifully. “Only in Dreams,” Weezer’s Blue Album-closing anthem of desolation and urgency provides the ideal backing to Jay-Z’s greatest moment of introspection on the album, yet still somehow manages to seem infinitely more modest than the background of the annoyingly theatrical Eminem-produced original. Though keeping Rivers’ chorus in tact was perhaps not such a wise idea, this remains a gem of a mash-up.

9. “99 Problems” (from Dangermouse’s The Grey Album)
Oh yeah. The original might still be even better than this, a blazing Rick Rubin production that makes for one of Jay’s best singles ever, but pairing it with the White Album’s “Helter Skelter” was such a natural choice—and is executed so perfectly—that I just had to include this. Together, “99 Problems” and “Helter Skelter” make for one of the most exciting songs ever. But you probably could have guessed that.

10. “Public Service Announcement” (from RJD2’s Silver Album)
RJD2 takes “Public Service Announcement” and matches it with Soul Position’s “Still Listening,” turning it from a throwaway near-interlude to a creepy jewel of the album’s second half, furthering the sense of paranoia from “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” and “Threat”.

11. “Justify My Thug” (original album track)
This one was pretty great as is—a hot-shit old-school electro stomp. Would’ve been even more awesome if he had gotten Madonna to sing the chorus—as he planned—but it’ll still do quite nicely.

12. “Lucifer” (from Kevin Brown’s The Brown Album)
Kanye West’s original was fairly fabulous, intimidating but fun (especially with that “Lucifer! Lucifer!” chorus), but Kevin Brown here slows it down considerably, making it the most soulful track on the album and thus stealing Kanye’s Jay-Z-appointed title of being “a real soulful dude”.

13. “Jackals, Allure – The Lonesome Era” (from DJ-N-Wee’s The Slack Album)
The success of this Pavement/Jay-Z mash really depends on how willing you are to suspend your disbelief and have some fun with a nifty little mash-up. It’s not seamless—DJ-n-Wee doesn’t really know what to do with Pavement’s guitars, so he just makes them buzz like synths, and the tempo doesn’t always quite match up, but it’s usually well-synched and makes for an enjoyable new spin on the song. Once again, though, cynics might want to skip this one.

14. “My First Song” (from 9th Wonder’s The Black Remixes)
And so, like he began the album, 9th Wonder rounds out my Black Album with his gorgeous reading of album-closer “My First Song”. The original’s music didn’t stand up well enough to endless repetition, but this one makes for a fine outro.

By: Andrew Unterberger
Published on: 2004-07-20
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