Before I get to the review, some brief background information is necessary. Danger Mouse, one of the preeminent underground hip-hop emcees, was going about his business one day when he had an idea: He would take the vocal tracks from Jay-Z’s alleged swan song, The Black Album, and combine them with samples from The Beatles’ White Album to create (no way) The Grey Album. Three thousand copies were pressed and distributed to various independent record stores. The seemingly small-time record garnered so much enthusiasm so quickly that EMI, who owns the rights to the Beatles’ catalog, gave cease-and-desist orders, thereby ending all legal circulation of the album. Thank God for the Internet.
The Grey Album, which is sequenced differently than The Black Album, begins with “Public Service Announcement” and immediately it’s clear that the record is destined to be a success. Jay-Z’s rhymes are placed over a radically cut up “Long Long Long,” the soft George Harrison ballad, which, to say the least, seemed unlikely to ever serve as the backbone for a rap song prior to this.
This inventiveness can be found throughout. Many of the White Album’s lilting, light-hearted songs would seem unfit for hip-hop, except Danger Mouse’s masterful utilization of bass beats, snare hits, and stutters make one forget about all the superstar producers who lined up to produce the songs’ original versions. “Mother Nature’s Son,” “Julia,” and “Cry Baby Cry” are all broken down to their bare elements and reconstructed in such a manner.
But perhaps the album’s defining moment comes when Danger Mouse leaves his source material largely unaltered. “Encore” begins with a loop from the opening of “Glass Onion” that leaves the Beatles sounding less like a piece of The Grey Album’s puzzle and more like Jay’s actual backing band. Maybe this is a sacrilegious thought for some, but the song itself is wildly exciting. And it only gets better from there, when, halfway through, the beat inexplicably changes to a sample of “Savoy Truffle.” Once again, aside from some added bass, the sample’s structure remains largely intact. Here, “Savoy Truffle” is implemented so seamlessly that it actually does sound like it was made for hip-hop.
But it shouldn’t be surprising that a project this ambitious isn’t without its hiccups. Several aspects of “What More Can I Say” seem forced. The use of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” never fully meshes with the verses, and the insertion of the chorus from The Black Album version feels unnatural. But for every misstep, there is most certainly a place where Danger Mouse skillfully matches songs from White and Black. The pairing of the aggressive “Helter Skelter” with the misogynistic “99 Problems” is quite creative, as is the amalgamation of the childish “Piggies” and bouncy “Change Clothes.” Before EMI stepped in, Danger Mouse said that he thought Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr would like The Grey Album, but if he had heard that Jay-Z himself disapproved, then he would ask for all of the distributed copies to be returned. Well, I’m here to say that if Jay-Z doesn’t like this, then he’s an idiot.
Archived article by Ross McGowan