The Grey Album
t took the simultaneous detonation of three micro-cultural supernovas to birth DJ Dangermouse’s The Grey Album, an epic mash-up of The Beatles’ White Album and Jay-Z’s The Black Album. The first is fairly obvious: the emergence of the mash-up as genre, the cross-section between electronic sampling, musique concrete, and out-and-out theft. The second: the newly assertive RIAA acting hysterically vigilant over copyright laws, artist’s rights, et. Al., and the subsequent listener rebellion in response to that vigilance. The third is a bit of a stretch, but bear with me: Jay-Z’s self-proclaimed "final album" release provoked a thunderclap of skepticism among listeners (That is, is the man who essentially lords over mainstream hip-hop committing an act of massive hubris–is he, in fact done, or is The Black Album just a massive ruse to invoke anticipation for his inevitable return?), imbuing his record with the sort of inviting radioactive glow emanating only out of the most unholy finalities. Dangermouse (nee Brian Burton), is the little man caught in the middle of it all, the talented hip-hop maestro behind last year’s fabulous Ghetto Pop Life. In his words, "I intended for[The Grey Album] to be for friends and for people who knew my stuff. I figured it would get passed around, and it would be this little underground thing."
By merit of all the names involved alone, it’s unsurprising that The Grey Album is a smash-hit. Instead, what’s unexpected about the album is how listeners are using the record to take idealistic stances on the RIAA’s highly restrictive policies on who "owns" music. Amid all the fervor surrounding the record, with EMI (Owner of The Beatles’ recordings) basically freaking out, and Roc-A-Fella (Jay-Z’s label) duly noting that while Dangermouse should have obtained permission to use Jay-Z’s recordings, the record is otherwise "hot," the album has in a few short weeks become a substantial footnote in the histories of all artists and companies involved. While the various legal parties prepare to duke it out in some superhuman genre-lapsing slugfest that could potentially have significant ramifications on listener’s and artist’s rights, it’s important for the listener to untangle himself from the political mire surrounding the record, and give notice to the music itself.
With no brilliant single or memorable melodic hook (I.E. the crunked-out tropicalia of "Big Pimpin’," or the Ecstacy-fueled delirium of "I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me)," the monotony of Jay-Z’s boasts on The Black Album treaded the line of off-putting egregiousness. The Grey Album, however, utilizes the rumble of John Lennon and George Harrison’s muscular guitar interplay to transform stale sentiments like "I’ve got 99 problems, but a bitch ain’t one" (Taken from "99 Problems") into slightly more legitimate concerns. Tracks like "Allure," previously characterized by bland hip-hop melodies and stale beats, here seem reinvigorated by the freshness of Dangermouse’s production and The Beatles’ expert pop musicianship. Dangermouse smashes apart classic Beatles songs like "Long, Long, Long," emphasizes the most transmutable elements of those songs in wildly unpredictable ways, and splices them back together in service of Jay-Z’s intricate wordplay. The result is at first disorienting, and then quieting. If the timelessness of The Beatles’ music can mingle coherently with Jay-Z’s modern rap, is genre really such hindrance, or is good music good music, no matter what form it exists in?
Dangermouse seems to subscribe the latter philosophy. Claiming his inspiration for The Grey Album came to him as suddenly and unsolicited as to be an epiphany ("I thought, hey; I can do this!"), the album does indeed contain a revelatory amount of cohesion. "Dirt Off Your Shoulder" flits through a sheaf of pop melodies, utilizing and discarding Beatles riffs’ like bottles of Cristal. "Encore"’s use of Lennon/McCartney harmonizing ("Oh yeah!") renders the track more organic, urgent, and menacing that the original. Even the undulating tones of the aforementioned "Long, Long, Long"–as delicate and beautiful song as George Harrison ever wrote–are used here as a lush background for Jay-Z’s thuggish rhymes. The record only falters when Dangermouse seems too keen on ameliorating the obviously disparate elements together–in these instances, when he resorts to looping particularly bass-heavy Beatles motif repeatedly, the listener is jerked back to the relative banality of The Black Album’s production.
So to preemptively answer your question: No. The Grey Album isn’t much more than a well-executed novelty, nor does it illuminate some genius hidden deep within The Black Album. But whatever the outcome of the legal entanglements surrounding it, The Grey Album’s influence may irrevocably bridge the underground and mainstream hip-hop communities, allowing their influence to reflect off of–and in turn, influence–each other. If this serves to bring justly deserved fame and publicity to Dangermouse, more of it to The Beatles, and/or legitimize the art of sampling records to create new works, then The Grey Album may one day prove to be an important curio from our modern age: the record that gave the music back to the people.
Reviewed by: Eric Seguy
Reviewed on: 2004-03-09