Saturday, January 2, 2010

Jay-Z: The Remixes

I'm going to take it for granted right now that most of you are familiar with DJ Danger Mouse's The Grey Album, released back in 2004 to questionable legality. For those who aren't, it rather brilliantly mixed the vocals from Jay-Z's The Black Album with music taken from The Beatles. It was masterful, and the uproar over copyright infringement was drowned out by the impulse to acquire a copy. I managed to get one the day before it was pulled off the net. Well, I say "pulled off the net" like that's really possible, but the day before it was "officially" "pulled off the net."

I was in Reckless Records today, flipping through the records, and I came across Jaydiohead, a limited pressing of an album mixing those same vocals from Jay-Z with music by Radiohead. After I recovered from the shock that it was actually pressed, with an actual sleeve, in an actual store, I became skeptical, as to how it would sound. To be in Reckless Records, it had to be legal, so I wasn't worried about that, but... something wasn't right. At least, it didn't feel right.

I had to listen, so I did.

Oh, right, for those not in the know; Jay-Z isn't concerned in any of this, because he released the vocal tracks from The Black Album to the public, specifically so they could do remixes like this. Personally, I think it was a great gesture, and one that should be committed more often. Moving on.

I listened to Jaydiohead, and then I listened to The Grey Album, and it brought me to an interesting question; At what point is the appeal purely in the novelty? What makes one thing art, and another merely a cute idea that was fun the first time, like Feed the Animals by Girl Talk (I kid, but it's a criticism)? This deserved closer inspection.

I listened to Jaydiohead again, and I still walked away from it feeling like nothing that exciting had happened. I mean, don't get me wrong, the concept got me excited enough. I enjoy mashups in concept. There's a video on Youtube of... I want to say it's "Chasing Cars" by Snow Patrol mashed with "Every Breath You Take" by The Police, and it's awesome. Goosebump raising, even. Point here, folks, is that it can be done well. And The Grey Album does. So, what about Jaydiohead left me feeling so empty?

This could have taken years of debate and careful introspection. Fortunately, as both drew from The Black Album's pool of tracks, I was able to do direct comparisons, so it took about an hour instead. If you can, acquire a copy of each, and listen. Particularly if you enjoy DJ-style music. You'll notice, almost right away, the mistakes made on Jaydiohead that were avoided on The Grey Album.

My whole point here can be illustrated by looking at the two respective versions of "99 Problems." The Grey Album offers "99 Problems" mixed with "Helter Skelter." Jaydiohead gives us "99 Anthems," which mixes it with "The National Anthem" from Kid A. Both open rather splendidly; "99 Problems"+"Helter Skelter" opens with an acapella refrain, "If you're having girl problems, I feel bad for you, son. I got 99 problems, but a bitch ain't one," from Jay-Z's original, and then the wall of "WAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHH" from "Helter Skelter" roars into life. (Don't give me that look; you know what I mean) The beat is nuanced, and hits all the right points of emphasis. It may not be quite as good as the original "99 Problems," but it's still a thrilling four minutes. "99 Anthems" opens with the bass groove from "The National Anthem," which I think we can all agree is an excellent way to start any song, combined with the siren from Jay-Z's. It's a great start. And then the rapping starts, and it's fine, until you realise that the DJ behind this, Max Tannone, has basically put on "The National Anthem" and "99 Problems," and left the room. The beat's not far off, but it's not right, and the novelty of the idea is only enough to carry you through one listen; trust me. I checked.

What it boils down to is this: With The Grey Album, DJ Danger Mouse spent hours splicing everything. He used the music of The Beatles, but he didn't use their songs. Because of that, The Grey Album is an exciting, exhilarating listen, and well worth your time. With Jaydiohead, DJ Max Tannone had a potentially great idea (One, by the way, I think he may have gotten from "Set It Off" off of Feed the Animals which features Jay-Z's "Roc Boys (And the Winner Is...)" set over the music from Radiohead's "Paranoid Android"), but he didn't follow through on it. Not only did he use Radiohead's music to back up Jay-Z's nuanced and rhythmically sophisticated lyrics, but he used their songs, which are meant for Thom Yorke's keening, not Jay-Z's preening. Listening to Jaydiohead, you can tell what you're hearing is not of one world. Listening to The Grey Album, you'd be forgiven for thinking that The Beatles were parts of the original track. And that, my friends, is the best compliment you can give a remix.

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