In We’re No. 1, The A.V. Club examines an album that went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts to get to the heart of what it means to be popular in pop music, and how that concept has changed over the years. This installment covers Jay-Z and Linkin Park’s Collision Course, which went to No. 1 on December 18, 2004, where it stayed for one week.
Though album sales were down a bit from their turn-of-the-century peak, they were still hovering at near-historic heights in 2004. Thanks to strong consumer enthusiasm and blockbuster releases from artists like Usher, Eminem, and Norah Jones, the music industry moved 667 million albums that year, more than twice as many as it would in 2012. That figure would paint a mighty rosy picture of the industry at the time, if those sales hadn’t also been bolstered by something far more unseemly: fear. The RIAA had recently escalated its war against online piracy, filing hundreds of lawsuits against citizens accused of downloading or distributing MP3s, seeking damages of up to $150,000 per copyright violation. As if to send the message that anybody could become a target, the organization directed these suits not just at pirate-ring captains, but also at casual, everyday file sharers. Among the accused: a 12-year-old girl, a 71-year-old grandfather, and a 66-year-old retired schoolteacher, who was alleged to have pirated extreme volumes of gangsta rap.
It was this campaign of fear that lent steam to mash-up culture, an Internet phenomenon that reached its commercial culmination that year with Jay-Z and Linkin Park’s multimillion-selling Collision Course EP. Mash-ups, the sometimes inspired but usually just kind of tacky fusion of two preexisting songs, had existed in some form for decades, but they only emerged as a cultural force in the early 2000s, when new software made it easier than ever to smash together two tracks and, just as importantly, the Internet gave those hybrid songs a vast, undiscerning audience. Today mash-ups are so ubiquitous—and usually joyless, the source of so many uninspired YouTube shares and hammy Glee setpieces—that it’s hard to believe they were ever considered genuinely daring, yet in the early-2000s they represented a very real kind of rebellion. To violate the copyright on a Britney Spears song was to taunt the music industry’s litigious powers, and to risk a potentially bankrupting lawsuit. That threat made the whole endeavor seem exciting and dangerous, even if the end result was just a crappier version of a Britney Spears song.
This danger eventually became overstated. To judge by the breathless 2006 write-ups of Girl Talk’s Night Ripper, Gregg Gillis could have been whisked off to a Guantanamo Bay holding cell at any moment for not clearing a Hall & Oates sample. But in 2004, the risk couldn’t have felt more real. Danger Mouse, in particular, had reason to pause that February before he leaked his breakthrough work, The Grey Album. A blend of Jay-Z’s widely sampled Black Album and The Beatles’ landmark White Album, The Grey Album became the most famous mash-up of all time, and to this day it remains the lone masterpiece of the form. Where most mash-ups played the contrast between their dueling samples for cheap novelty, Danger Mouse married his sources seamlessly, finding the emotional common ground between Jay-Z’s boastful reminisces and The Beatles’ florid 8-track collages. In infringing on one of the most sacred copyrights of all time, however, he also incited a legal showdown that set the precedent for how the industry responded to mash-ups. Fiercely protective of The Beatles’ catalog—which wouldn’t even be made available for legal download until more than six years later—EMI waged war on The Grey Album, firing off rounds of cease-and-desist letters to any site that hosted it. Those efforts backfired, only calling more attention to the black-market album by giving the press reason to write about it. EMI eventually saw its legal campaign for the lost cause it was, and other labels heeded the lesson: The best way to combat a victimless copyright violation was to not even bother.
That’s a great story. It’s one of the most inspiring artist-triumphs-label stories of the 2000s, right up there with the commercial and critical vindication of Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and it marked a crucial moral victory for fair-use proponents across the Internet. Because it’s so well-known, it’s hard not to compare The Grey Album’s rousing backstory to the decidedly duller one of 2004’s other major Jay-Z-based mash-up, Collision Course. One album was the work of a lone, renegade auteur, which spread through word of mouth on the Internet, where it was passed around like contraband. The other was a fully authorized label release whose birth required a lot of paperwork. There was no sexy creation myth behind Collision Course; it was just a guaranteed return on investment that, true to its end of the bargain, made Warner Bros. the boatloads of money that the label’s actuaries predicted it would.
All that makes Collision Course sound like a cynical exercise in profiteering, and for Jay-Z it almost certainly was. The rapper has always been torn between his passions for hip-hop and for commerce. This is his defining contradiction: He’s a bastion of street credibility who nonetheless has no qualms about sampling the Annie soundtrack, an artist who makes no distinction between The Blueprint and The Blueprint 3. But if Collision Course was a cash grab for Jay-Z, for Linkin Park’s Mike Shinoda, at least, it was a genuine labor of love. As a rule, nü-metal rappers aren’t taken seriously in rap circles, partly because of all the rage and screaming and guitars, but mostly because so many of them rap like they’re reciting an eye chart. Yet Shinoda’s passion for hip-hop was always greater than his reputation as “Linkin Park’s rappy guy” did justice to. In 2005, he’d demonstrate that with a thoroughly respectable (if not quite good) album from his hip-hop-minded side-project Fort Minor, but Collision Course represented an even bigger dream come true, the chance to work side-by-side with rap’s biggest name. If that couldn’t legitimize him as a rapper, what could?
According to an interview with MTV News, Shinoda initiated the project, mashing up three Black Album songs to pitch Jay-Z on the collaboration. “I didn’t just want to say, ‘Hell, yeah, let’s do it’—I wanted to show him what it might sound like if we did it,” Shinoda explained. “After that, he wanted to talk only by e-mail instead of in person because he thought that would save a little bit of the excitement for when we really got to meet.” It’s a testament to Shinoda’s fanboy reverence for Jay-Z that he actually bought that sad explanation. Jay-Z was so excited about the project, according to this delusional logic, that he didn’t want to be in the studio for the bulk of its creation.
A DVD documentary packaged with the Collision Course CD further reveals how lopsided the collaboration was. Its early minutes find Linkin Park in the studio waiting for Jay-Z, with most of the band putzing about as Shinoda tweaks at his tracks obsessively. In his absence, Jay-Z looms over these early scenes as a Great Pumpkin-like figure. Shinoda combs a text from Jay-Z’s manager for hopeful clues that the rapper approves of the tracks he’s received, while Chester Bennington (Linkin Park’s screaming guy) takes advantage of the camera’s attention before the bigger star arrives. “Can I get shots of myself looking cool? Because Jay-Z is going to be here soon, and he’s way cooler than me.” Jay-Z does arrive eventually, but his presence doesn’t change the underlying dynamic of these sessions. After the rapper exchanges introductions with the band, he becomes just one more musician in the studio, signing off on tracks that Shinoda had already created.
It’s only when Shinoda musters the courage to ask Jay-Z to re-record a few of his verses, staring at the floor and sheepishly running his hands through his hair as he makes the request, that the documentary snaps to life. A magnetic scene captures Jay in the booth, racing through a tricky “Jigga What” verse to keep pace with the rapid synth gasps of Linkin Park’s “Faint.” The challenge seems to reinvigorate him. “That shit is fast as shit!” he laughs after his breakneck take. “I might have to bring out the young Jay-Z!”
Young Jay-Z doesn’t stay long, though. In the scene that best illustrates Collision Course’s enthusiasm gap, the Linkin Park guys discuss their rollout plans for the collaboration, which they’re set to reveal at a surprise concert for hand-selected fan-club members. The band had remained tightlipped about the nature of the show, and they can barely wait to see their most diehard fans freak out when Jay-Z takes stage. They press the rapper to see if he’s as giddy about the secret as they are. “What was the communication with your fans?” Shinoda asks Jay-Z. “I don’t know,” Jay-Z responds coldly. “I didn’t talk to no one.”
The documentary’s session footage ends with Jay-Z tracking a perfunctory take of “99 Problems” and preemptively refuting requests for a second run by insisting, “That was great, let’s move on.” He seems to understand that he’s cutting corners when he justifies his short time in the studio to a cameraman by explaining “I’m operating at a higher level… I make this shit look easy,” as he slips out an exit; there’s no footage of him saying goodbye to the band. Shinoda puts his best spin on the hurried session as he calls it a wrap. “Don’t you wish it was this easy when we made an album?” he asks his bandmates with a thin smile, as his eyes dart downward with the disappointment that comes when an encounter with an idol inevitably fails to live up to expectations.
Collision Course may not have made Shinoda and Jay-Z BFFs, but it did succeed in linking the band with the rapper in the public’s mind, at least for a while. MTV played Linkin Park and Jay-Z’s mash-up concert in constant rotation for months, and at the 2006 Grammys, the two acts were chosen to perform their “Numb/Encore” blend together, assisted by surprise guest Paul McCartney, who lent “Yesterday” to the mix. Whether Sir Paul’s appearance was an intentional nod to The Grey Album isn’t clear, but either way, it’s the closest the Grammys came to recognizing Danger Mouse’s influential project, a slight that seems even more egregious years later. Where The Grey Album has held up as a lasting work, Collision Course is a mere footnote in both Jay-Z and Linkin Park’s discographies.
Linkin Park and Jay-Z’s collaboration benefited all involved, affirming both acts as titans of their respective genres, while paving the way for Shinoda’s Fort Minor project and helping Jay-Z maintain his extraordinary profile during his fake-retirement years. Still, one can’t help but wonder whether they look back on it now and feel like they got away with something. Taking advantage of their sure-thing star power in an era when consumers were less discerning about the music they paid for, they sold 5 million copies of a 21-minute EP of recycled music that, if it had come out today, would probably just have been posted for free download to Shinoda’s Tumblr page.