Sunday, December 24, 2006

Brooklyn in Da British House (By Way of a Mouse)

Danger Mouse, The Grey Album, Bootleg [2004]

I pray I'm forgiven
For every bad decision I made
Every sister I played
Cause I'm still paranoid to this day
And it's nobody fault I made the decisions I made
This is the life I chose or rather the life that chose me
If you can't respect that, your whole perspective is wack
Maybe you'll love me when I fade to black.
-- Jay-Z, "December 4th"


By now, everybody knows about The Grey Album. The thing is, not everyone has actually heard the record, since it was never--and will never be--officially released. Brian Burton, AKA Danger Mouse, had been kicking around the fringes of the music world for years before he put this thing together. In one fell swoop, it made his rep, leading to Danger Doom, Gnarls Barkley, and production work for the Gorillaz and the Rapture, among others.

The concept is simple: Combine Jay-Z's Black Album (2003) with the Beatles' White Album (1968). Brilliant. Well, I have a confession to make. Up until now, I was familiar with exactly one Jay-Z track, "99 Problems," and that's only because it's on the Mark Romanek DVD. Yeah, I realize that makes me the lamest of the lame, but my taste in hip-hop runs towards the indie/alternative stuff. That said, I know the Beatles. Who doesn't? So, I find it easiest to evaluate this recording from a pop-rock perspective.

I don't hear any Beatles on the first track, "Public Service Announcement," but the second, "What More Can I Say," makes extensive use of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." The third, "Encore," opts for "Glass Onion." Track four, "December 4th," is built around the break from "Cry Baby Cry." Wow. This is where things really come together (as the Beatles might say). Shawn Carter, AKA Jay-Z, recites his biography over one of the Beatles' loveliest melodies. In a perfect world, this would've been released as a single.

This brings us to Rick Rubin-produced slammer "99 Problems," pretty much the polar opposite of the track that precedes it. This jam still sounds more like Rubin than Danger, as the latter stitches Jay-Z's rap to the guitar line from "Helter Skelter" and some big-ass beats (according to the AMG, Rubin swiped those beats from Billy Squier). It's the logical successor to those Aerosmith/Run-DMC and Public Enemy/Anthrax rap-metal mash-ups of yore. If not for EMI's legal team, this could've been released as a single, too.

On track six, "Dirt Off Your Shoulder," Danger Mouse slices and dices "Julia" into such tiny slivers that I could barely recognize it.
I had an even harder time identifying the Beatles songs in the remaining tracks: "Moment of Clarity," "Change Clothes," "Allure," "Justify My Thug," "Interlude," and "My 1st Song."

Jay-Z - "99 Problems" (dir. Mark Romanek) [Clean]

The biggest question I had about this CD before listening was this: who predominates, Jay-Z or the Beatles? Or does Danger create something so new that it transcends his source material? Because Jay-Z's relaxed, yet authoritative voice is the first and last thing I noticed--many of the samples are barely recognizable--I would say that The Grey Album is mostly for the hip-hop heads. I guess that isn't too surprising. What would be really cool, however, is if Danger created a sequel in which the White Album is in the forefront and The Black Album is in the background. The Grey Album makes me appreciate the producer's talents behind the boards and the rapper's skills on the mic, but it also makes me miss the equally resonant voices of John, Paul, George, and Ringo.


I did this project because I love the Beatles and Jay-Z.
I knew when I produced The Grey Album that there might be questions and issues that this project would bring up, but I
really don't know the answers to many of them. It was not
meant to be anything but an artistic expression, and I still
hope that that is the way it's perceived.
-- Danger Mouse press release, 2/23/04

Endnote: Images from the AMG and the NME, lyrics from A-Z Lyrics Universe, and video from YouTube. Please click here for more information about Danger Mouse, here for the history of The Grey Album, and here to download your own copy.

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