Venturing out of the kaleidoscopic jungle fever pitch of M.I.A.’s Arular we find ourselves at the concrete crossroads between Brooklyn’s Marcy Projects and London’s Abbey Road with DJ Danger Mouse’s brilliant return to basics, the masterful Jay-Z versus Beatles mash-up, The Grey Album. The Grey Album is a cataclysmic crux of two epic absolutes: The Beatles’ White Album and Jay-Z’s Black Album with the rhapsodic rodent at the helm. Burton blurs the lines and illuminates the bonds between good and d’evils to create a gritty grey area – platinum records sans the shine.
The Grey Album is a cultural reflection and blueprint. It is a hybrid of two artistic absolutes: Jay-Z’s Black Album as the pitch black to which he faded – the close to a career, the retirement, the sendoff, the assumed end; The Beatles’ White Album as their rebirth – the first album after the death of their manager Brian Epstein, and the first album on their own record label Apple – donning a pure white album cover with nothing but “The BEATLES” in black. The mash-up flips the roles and sees Hov’s requiem lyrics as a renaissance.
Lyrically, Jay-Z is at the forefront; however, The Beatles are far from fallen back. Danger Mouse finds a perfect harmonic balance between the two pieces. There is no true dominance here, it’s all about perspective: prominence versus constants. While Jay-Z is the sole voice telling the tales through a capella samples; The Beatles are the enveloping atmosphere giving sentiment to the semantics, melodically giving new meaning to Carter’s message. The Beatles act as a backing band, the stage upon which Jay-Z performs best; as a generational iconography, The Beatles’ presence on The Grey Album gives context to the cultural icon as the proverbial shoulders upon which he strides.
The Grey Album‘s fusion gives precedence to the undertones, and the tracklisting – even if only in title alone – adds immense depth to the original tracks. While the “Sexy, Sexy” mix finds our dear Prudence de-robing and changing clothes, we also find Danger Mouse’s ode to the inner-pimp in every don diva as “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” rides over “Julia.” Verse by verse the beat-backed shift in perspective is Julia’s ghetto story, Hov and his white girl breaking from the kitchen and the cult of domesticity to the kingpin’s throne “Your homey Hov’ in position, in the kitchen with soda… Now, fifty-two cars roll out, remove ceiling. In case fifty-two broads come out, now you chillin, with a boss bitch of course S.C. on the sleeve.” Danger Mouse flipped “O’s the opposite with Orphan Annie,” the beautiful b in the back of the ‘Bach. We had Fergie looking glamorous, and Danity Kane showstopping, but here we find an anti-ringtone anthem for the street mistresses.
“Shawn Carter was born December 4th. Weighing in at 10 pounds 8 ounces. He was the last of my 4 children. The only one who didn’t give me any pain when i gave birth to him – and that’s how i knew that he was a special child.” Born on December 4th, here Burton solidified the social imperialist’s place as a product of his environment as Carter flows over – and as – “Mother Nature’s Son” sample. Backed by The Beatles, Hov is as much a product of his artistic environment within this work, and as a cultural signifier, as he is a literal product of the Marcy Projects – both of which made him the musical monarch he is today. Let it be said though, that the head that wears the crown is almost as heavy as the oft-spoken “she.”
While Rick Rubin portrayed the grizzly death of Hov – being gunned down on the same Brooklyn block that previously couldn’t knock his hustle; Burton sees the happiness of that warm gun as Carter’s epiphanic “Moment of Clarity.” Both Jay-Z and the Beatles albums are themselves are undoubtedly masterpieces, near perfect recordings – epiphanies within their respective eras.
Danger Mouse has on one turntable the pristine white illumination, and on the other, black magic – together they meet on the infamous grey battleground: “Interlude.” Under the deafening roars of conspiracy theorists screaming Illuminati after every Jay-Z utterance, Burton adds fuel to the fire with an amazing hidden-in-plain-view superlatively subliminal communion between Hov’s “Lucifer 9” and The Beatles “Revolution 9.” Carter, like the second Beatles sample on “Interlude” is so tired, as far as the Illuminati woes go: it’s on to the next one. “Lucifer, dawn of de morning! I’m gonna, chase you out of Earth…” like an exorcism releasing d’evils of his past and putting the former self to rest in light of a revolutionary rebirth.
Always treating his first like his last – from the first song to the 99th problem and everywhere in between – the beginning is the end and when both ends meet – Grey Album or otherwise – it’s pure helter skelter. Danger Mouse added a darkness to The White Album that the original recording’s title would distance one’s perception from grasping, and in turn, softened the edge of The Black Album. The sound he created was one of the greatest sonic homages to hip-hop and modern sampling since DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing… The precision of Danger Mouse’s mixing creates a steady staccato, that sets a comfort within the quick cuts. The signature smooth Beatles riffs and harmonies are run through the gutter gamut – but come out transformed in a way that makes the listener feel the music in a way that bridges Brooklyn and London, transcending any transatlantic, tonal, or temporal barriers.
DJ Danger Mouse’s The Grey Album finds The Beatles, not faded to the back, but highlighting the side of Hov that went overlooked after he faded to Black. The White Album foundation gives context to Jay-Z’s lyrical story as much as it does to the culture over which he dictates. Of all the generations past, we are the lost ones; we are a grey era – who won’t walk away, but won’t look back – finding our way through the fog, and making our way in their midst. Those who don’t remember history are doomed to repeat it; while those who truly appreciate it, remix it to blueprint the future – unforgettable.