The Grey Album
By Peter Hepburn | 2 March 2004
Ah, mash-ups. What could be finer than hearing Christina Aguilera crooning over the Strokes? I’ve always enjoyed them, but they’ve never struck me as deserving of overly serious consideration (of the sort I am about to partake in). Of course, the same can be said for Jay-Z, except I’ve never even really enjoyed him that much. His flow, although proficient, hasn’t ever struck me as particularly deserving of the accolades with which he has been showered, and his subject matter and lyrics haven’t ever moved me very much (yeah, OK, I admit I’m a Nas fan).
However, news of Jay-Z’s Black Album got me excited not just because it represented Hova’s retirement but also because he managed to recruit pretty much every producer in mainstream rap to work on the album. My hopes were, not too surprisingly, dashed—the production on the album didn’t take the risks that it could have and really showed rather little originality, even from producers who generally are able to develop something decent.
DJ Dangermouse solves at least part of the problem with the Black Album, undertaking an ambitious remix of the entire album using tracks from the Beatles’ most ambitious of masterpieces, the White Album. Here the focus is clearly on the beats and making the Beatles work and keep up with Hova’s stutter step and occasionally quick delivery. The album clearly works on a purely proficient level, but in many cases DM is able to add a great deal to the tracks.
By using Beatles tracks DM infuses the album with a far more rocking feel. The album opens with “Public Service Announcement,” which incorporates elements from “Long, long, long” and “Mother Nature’s Son.” The vocals are mainly Jay-Z’s and the samples used on the album, but there are the occasional clipped vocals or sigh of Lennon or McCartney (true of the entire album). “What More Can I Say” continues in the same vein, using “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and a strong programmed beat to good effect.
Both of those tracks were passable on the original, so the effect of DM’s production isn’t quite as pronounced. This is not true of the next few tracks. On “Encore,” the driving beat brings out the best in Hova’s flow and the final sample works far better here than on the Black Album. I don’t think anybody could have fully saved “December 4th,” but DM gives it a shot. “Helter Skelter” improves on the original “99 Problems,” though it’s still not an overly impressive track.
Timbaland train-wrecked “Dirt off your Shoulder,” but DM does an impressive remix using “Rocky Raccoon” and a series of handclaps and quick beats. “Moment of Clarity,” probably the best track on the Grey Album, meshes a slower rap from Jay with an amalgam of Beatles tracks, and DM is able to fit it remarkably well to Hova’s delivery. “Change Clothes” works reasonably well, riding on what sounds vaguely like a sped-up version of “Piggies.”
The second half of the album doesn’t hold up as well as the first. Both “Allure” and “Justify my Thug” basically fall into a rut on the beat and stay there. “Lucifer 9” uses chopped vocal clips from both of the two albums and mixes them up in “Revolution 9” style, but seems like something of a cop-out. “My First Song” finishes the album on a strong note, riding a beat built off of several tracks meshed together and matched to Hova’s flow perfectly.
There are basically few missteps on this album; the beat occasionally gets stuck, but for the most part DM goes beyond technical proficiency and demonstrates a creativity and virtuosity with details. It would have been nice to have a complete remix, as DM does leave several tracks off his Grey Album and there were certainly Beatles songs left unused. The ambition of the project is clearly part of the charm, but its limitations certainly harm it. After hearing this I wish DM would come up with his own beats for such an album, or at the least use samples beyond those used on the Black Album. For what it sets out to do, and considering it was created in two weeks as an album for his friends, this is an impressive record, and though it will almost certainly not stand any sort of test of time (or of court) it is a creative, successful re-imagining of an otherwise mediocre album.