The initial advertising campaign for Jay-Z’s (alleged) swansong, 2003’s The Black Album, featured a picture of a tape box with the names of 12 of hip-hop’s greatest producers scribbled on it. Chalk it up to a two-way malfunction, but the name of famed Beatles knob-adjuster George Martin was conspicuously absent. Nomadic producer/DJ Danger Mouse corrects that oversight onThe Grey Album, which fuses the a cappella vocals from Hova’s last will and testament with new music sample-sourced from the Beatles’ sprawling psychedelic classic, The Beatles, better known as “the White Album.”
Remixing The Black Album has become something of a cottage industry. DJ Lt. Dan’s The Black Remixes: Back to Basics mates Jay-Z’s verses with classic Brand Nubian and Notorious B.I.G. beats; producers Kno and Kev Brown set Jigga’s words to beats of their own creation. But Danger Mouse’s album is a whole different rodentit doesn’t sound the least bit slapped together, and while the novelty factor alone makes it worth the download time, it works as a cohesive album long after the initial shock (“Blimey, he’s rapping over ‘Helter Skelter!'”) wears off.
Danger Mousewho, with his MC partner, Jemini, released the excellent indie-rap album Ghetto Pop Life last yearchops and dices and jumbles the Fab Four, building weird, astonishing beds for Hova’s rhymes instead of just letting extended loops of Beatles bliss ride out. More important, he keeps the sentiments in sync as well as the tempos. He exposes the mournful undercurrents of “What More Can I Say,” Jay’s acidic farewell to the rap game, by draping it over “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and punctuates the jubilation of “Encore” by building a psychedelic Stax jam out of snippets of “Glass Onion” and “Savoy Truffle.”
There are some moments of jaw-dropping invention here, like when Danger Mouse cuts up the acoustic-guitar line from”Julia” to mimic Timbaland’s trademark shuffle on “Dirt off Your Shoulder.” But the real accomplishment of The Grey Album is how it lets us hear two ubiquitous pop-music figures in new ways. It frees the Beatles’ music from so-canonical-it’s-practically-wallpaper purgatory without sacrificing the hooks and gives what may be Jay-Z’s greatest sustained performance as a lyricist the consistent, complementary backing it deserves. It’s the kind of record only Paul McCartney’s legal team could hate, an inspired arts-and-crafts project that sounds like it wants a revolution.