It used to be that very famous musicians would, on very rare occasions, have a doll made in their image. But Jay-Z may be the first music maker in history to merit his own construction set. Go to www.jayzconstructionset.com, and you'll find something akin to a set of aural doll parts and clothes: a set of ready-made examples of how one canny capitalist has gotten as much or more promotion for (virtually) free than he did by blanketing the magazine racks for a year following his retirement announcement—and in a few cases, better music than he'd made the first (or rather, last) time around.
That last time around was The Black Album, which Jay-Z issued in a cappella (vocals-only) form not long after its initial November release, specifically to stimulate "the streets [to] remix the hell out of it," and the streets have been more than happy to oblige and then some. The Jay-Z Construction Kit—which, its makers stress, is not available commercially; the Web site directs the curious to various servers from which the set can be downloaded—comprises some 650 MB (a CD-R's worth) of audio samples (snare hits, horn blats), clip art, and—in addition to the complete Black Album, in original and a cappella form—eight remixes of it.
It's excessive, but it's also more stimulating—and surprising—than you might figure. At one point while playing the Construction Kit, I muttered something vaguely mean about overproduction inevitably equaling bland-out, starting with whichever example was currently reaching my ear. Then "99 Problems" started—the original, Rick Rubin–produced version, which meant the four previous songs I'd been grumbling about were, in fact, from The Black Album and not one of its remixes. Whoops.
The most famous remix is Danger Mouse's The Grey Album, an inspired bit of stunt casting that pairs Jay-Z with the Beatles' self-titled 1968 double "White Album." MC ScottD's Hot Buttered Soul Remixes, DJ Lt. Dan's Back to Basic Remixes, and Cheap Cologne's Double Black Album are basically content to pair Jay-Z with backing tracks from various well-defined sources—respectively, old soul records, '90s hip-hop classics, and Metallica's self-titled "black album" from 1991. (All three are on the Construction Kit.) But Danger Mouse does a lot more chopping, which frequently makes his sources sing anew. "Encore," for instance, moves between a moody bit of "Glass Onion" and something a bit more celebratory from "Savoy Truffle," while several of the Beatles' gentler numbers make surprisingly effective backbones for Jay-Z's relentless boasts.
Still, sometimes simple does the trick, which is one reason Kno from Cunninlynguists' The White Albulum is possibly the best thing on the Construction Kit. Kno gives "99 Problems" a chunky midtempo funk groove with bongos and a cool trumpet, which is more or less how he treats the entire disc. The Blackjays Album, by Toronto's Solitair and Kardinal Offishall, is less polished but alternately jazzier and more electro.
It's what the Kit has wrought that has me worried. The nadir to date is located at www.jay-zeezer.com, where you can find Jay-Z badly mismatched with, um, Weezer by some anonymous indie rocker. Hearing "December 4th" paired with "Say It Ain't So" and "Threat" with "Undone (The Sweater Song)"—maybe he should've just retitled it "Thread"— is bad enough. What's worse is the dude's unbelievable smugness: "I realized that I actually liked to listen to Jay-Z rap. I couldn't believe it. . . . There were amusing pop culture references and lyrics filled with cynicism. Were these not some of the same qualities that I loved about Steve Malkmus' vocals?" As SW contributor Ethan Padgett might put it: Dude, how do you breathe in that cultural vacuum?
Another new remix album isn't quite "lovable," but it is illuminating. At www.burncopy.com/424/main.html, you can find, in two halves, 424 Sound Monster Presents Blazin' Blip Blop and Blar & Blee, a set that pairs a cappella vocals from recent hip-hop and R&B hits with backing tracks consisting entirely of those songs' cell-phone ringtones. Sometimes the chintzy sonics enhance things—the ridiculously chirpy flute echoing the vocal of TLC's "No Scrubs" both brightens up the song and makes its get-lost lyric sting even harder. Similarly, Nas' hard-nosed, monotonous vocal style on "If I Ruled the World" is buoyed by the ringtone tweetles—which also make Shaggy's "It Wasn't Me" sound sillier, if you can imagine (or stomach) the idea. Even more intriguingly, Blar & Blee recasts two of pop's biggest producers. Listen to Justin Timberlake's "Rock Your Body," produced by the Neptunes, and R. Kelly's "Ignition," and it becomes clear why those songs sounded like lingua franca the minute they escaped the speakers the first time. In both cases, the music sounds less like a cheap redux of existing music than the original songs sound like live musicians covering ringtones.