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Color Me Blah
Mouse: The Grey Album
Posted: March 9,
Kevin Forest Moreau
Atlanta DJ Danger Mouse's decision to remix Jay-Z's self-serving swan
song The Black Album using backing tracks from the sprawling 1968
Beatles set known as The White Album seemed, when news of the
project first broke, like a stroke of genius. But that's the way with
novelty productions: What seems like a brilliant idea in conception often
proves to have very stubby legs in the real world.
True, there's something undeniably appealing about matching rap's most
devoted egotist (and that's saying something) with the Beatles, whose John
Lennon once infamously proclaimed that the group was "bigger than Jesus."
The thing is, though, that despite Lennon's tendency toward brash,
arrogant statements, an argument could be made that the Beatles ascended
to their legendary status largely by ignoring it: To paraphrase Aerosmith,
they usually let the music do the talking.
Well, the Beatles' music doesn't do much talking on The Grey
Album, and that seriously undermines the spirit of the whole
enterprise. Danger Mouse samples various parts of The White Album,
working them up into new sonic configurations, and then fits the results
around the vocal tracks from 12 of The Black Album's 14 songs. The
Beatles don't meet Jay-Z as equals; they're sliced and diced, the innate
musicality of their work all but compromised into nothingness, into
vaguely familiar square pegs crammed into the comparatively round holes of
Jay-Z's original vocals.
To his credit, Danger Mouse manages to fit these Frankenstein pieces
together in such a way as to sound on beat, as if Jay-Z had composed his
rhymes while listening to Mouse's backing tracks. But that's pretty easy
to do when you're manipulating the music to fit the raps. Okay, you might
be saying, but that's what hip-hop producers do. The odds of Jay's
rhymes synching up naturally with the Beatles' music, a la Dark Side of
the Moon and The Wizard of Oz, are so slim as to be incalculable.
Point well taken. But the fact remains that there's very little on The
Grey Album that sounds like the Beatles as we know them: the easily
identifiable intro to "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" that loops over "What
More Can I Say" (with a bit of Lennon's vocals darting through) and the
"Helter Skelter" stomp of "99 Problems" are the notable exceptions that
prove the rule.
By contrast, there's nothing about The Grey Album that
doesn't sound like Jay-Z, since the samples are forced to meet him,
sonically speaking, on his own terms. A talented producer can fashion
samples from just about any source material: Why sample the Beatles if the
bulk of the results lose the band's sonic fingerprints? Sure, a listener
can make out snatches of instrumentation in, say, the woodland idyll of
"Public Service Announcement" and say, "That bit sounds like it was nicked
from a song on The White Album." (It's harder, though, to do the
same with, say, the patchwork psychedelia of "Moment of Clarity.") But
it's one thing to infer some notes the Beatles once played; it's another
entirely to evoke the adventurous spirit, the pop craftsmanship, the
primordial, offhand melodicism that are the essence of the Beatles.
By itself, that's not a fatal flaw: It's highly doubtful that most of
the project's intended audience would even think to consider The Grey
Album on the abstract level of meta-musical concept. But by sapping
most of the musical source material from its primacy, The Grey Album
sounds flat and uninspired. Beyond the initial rush of novelty, the
backing tracks lack a compelling reason to keep listening, and if anything
only serve to point out just how important the right background is to a
rap song. Perhaps if Danger Mouse had endeavored to marry Jay-Z's pomp and
circumstance to something a little more dramatic -- the mainstream metal
of Metallica's self-titled black album, the soul-funk indecision of
Prince's Black Album, even the protozoan prog-rock of The Yes
Album -- he might have produced something that explored the crucial
role of musical dynamics in a rap track. Instead, The Grey Album is
a mildly engaging trifle that lives up to its name.
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