The Grey area between Black and White (music review)

Some things work together so well, it’s hard to imagine them apart. In the food department, you’ve got peanut butter and jelly, or bacon and just about anything edible. For literature and TV, there’s  Sherlock and Watson, and a certain straight-laced chemistry teacher and his reckless, drug-addicted former student. Music’s no stranger to fusion either (the industry calls them collaborations or mashups), but very few are as unexpectedly mind-blowing as DJ Danger Mouse’s “The Grey Album“, which marries The Beatles’ “The White Album” with Jay-Z’s “The Black Album”.

The Grey Album
Convincing proof that the color grey is anything but boring

“Grey” was first launched in 2004, but I didn’t learn about it until recently when I saw it on a list of list of best Beatles tributes. (I know, I know: where have I been, right?) To create the 12-track album, Danger Mouse (real name Brian Burton) took a capella versions of Jay-Z’s songs and set them to the music of the Fab Four.

If you haven’t heard of “Grey” until now either, you’re probably thinking, “what the fuck? he’s ruining the classics!” Trust me; the resulting babies of this musical coupling are pretty damn epic. It’s so great, in fact, that both Jay-Z and the surviving Beatles (that’ll be Paul and Ringo) gave it their stamp of approval. Sure, Danger Mouse had a bit of a tussle with EMI Records with his unauthorized use of The Beatles’ music, but that didn’t really stop fans from downloading and purchasing the album anyway.

I’ve been a huge fan of the Liverpool boys for a long time and while I can’t really say the same for Sean Carter, I do admit to bobbing my head to many of his more popular hits. Some of the songs on “The Black Album” I already know, but gaining a better appreciation for “Grey” requires listening to the rest, which I did.

The album opens with Danger Mouse’s trippy version of “PSA”, taking its in-your-face ‘tude and turning it into a more subdued number when matched with a sped-up “Long, Long, Long”. Danger’s treatment of “Encore” is kind of like “PSA”‘s but he went the opposite direction: he turned the song’s salsa-like disposition into more of an aggressive strut with “Glass Onion” and “Savoy Truffle”. But these aren’t even the most radical cuts on the album. That award goes to “Dirt Off Your Shoulder”, where Danger took bits and pieces of “Julia” and strung them together in a loop to follow the original beat of “Dirt”. A Frankenstein of an animal because of its bizarre mix, but one that you learn to appreciate the more you encounter it.

In some cases, Danger Mouse’s interpretations are more straightforward with minimum experimentation, but they’re gems all the same. One example is the “What More Can I Say-While My Guitar Gently Weeps” remix, where he simply matched the rap to the music. While Danger used much less techno styling here, “Guitar”‘s slow, melancholic tempo gives “What More” some drama, which actually makes it one of my favorite cuts.

“The Grey Album” didn’t just blur the lines between hip-hop and classic rock; it crossed it and doubled back, making fans out of both camps in the process. It’s a testament to the idea that no matter where your allegiance lies in the battle of which genre is better, there doesn’t need to be a revolution because you don’t have to choose.

Overall rating: ★★★✭


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