On DJ Danger Mouse's "The Grey Album," the Fab Four meets the Jigga Man.
In what has to be the most intriguing hip-hop album in recent memory, Danger Mouse, a DJ and producer, has married a cappella tracks from rapper Jay-Z's 2003 CD, "The Black Album," to musical beats and phrases found on the Beatles' 1968 offering, commonly known as "The White Album" -- hence the title, "The Grey Album."
"I had seen that there were these a cappella Jay-Z records," Danger Mouse told Rolling Stone recently. "I was listening to the Beatles later that day, and it just hit me like a wave. I was like, `Wait a minute -- I can do this.' "
Of course, sampling has been a vital part of hip-hop since it was born in the South Bronx nearly 30 years ago. What makes "The Grey Album" different is Danger Mouse's complete reliance on one album as source material for his remixes. This isn't just another mash-up, such as the club hit created last year when Justin Timberlake's "Cry Me a River" vocals were spliced onto Dazz Band's 1980s dance classic "Let It Whip."
While everyone from Frank Sinatra to Chaka Khan to Earth, Wind & Fire has covered Beatles songs, hip-hop artists have tended to stay away from the Beatles, if only because it is nearly impossible and prohibitively expensive to clear samples of their music.
Danger Mouse didn't bother. Without official consent from Jay-Z, the surviving Beatles, or Beatles widows Yoko Ono and Olivia Harrison, copies of "The Grey Album" are available only as MP3 bootlegs on the Internet.
As fascinating as "The Grey Album" is, it's unlikely that it will satisfy the exacting standards of those most fervently protective of Jay-Z or, especially, the Beatles. Danger Mouse ransacks "The White Album" looking for the perfect beat, and then loops and layers the sounds so that the original is sometimes nearly unrecognizable. It takes repeated listenings to realize that under Jay-Z's bragging "Dirt Off My Shoulder" is Lennon's gentle tribute to his mother, "Julia," and truth be told, it doesn't quite work.
Considerably more successful is "Encore," which samples "Glass Onion" and "Savoy Truffle." As Jay-Z raps, "Encore, do you want more/ Cookin' raw with the Brooklyn boy/ So for one last time, I need y'all to roar," Lennon sings an affirming "Oh yeah," from "Glass Onion." Danger Mouse drops the music in and around Jay-Z's vocals, giving the song great urgency and energy.
Another winner is "What More Can I Say," mixed with George Harrison's gorgeous "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." With Jay-Z's introspective lyrics about leaving the rap game he has dominated for so long -- he has said "The Black Album" is his last album -- the song's ringing guitars almost sound like church bells marking the end of a glorious era.
"Change Clothes," one of Jay-Z's biggest singles, always sounded less musically significant because of the Neptunes' feathery production. Hence Harrison's "Piggies," a "White Album" throwaway track, would seem an odd choice to beef up the song, but Danger Mouse figures out a way to make it work. The borrowed beats have more of a natural hip-hop groove than one might have imagined from the Beatles.
Perhaps the best track here, which taken alone would qualify this undertaking as something more than the knob noodlings of a DJ with too much time on his hands, is "99 Problems." Already a bruising song with nasty but catchy lyrics, Danger Mouse serves it up with the caustic "Helter Skelter," arguably -- and unfairly, thanks to Charles Manson and his merry band of murderers -- the most notorious track on "The White Album." Those sneering, biting guitars are the perfect accomplice to Jay-Z's lyrics: "If you're having girl problems, I feel bad for you, son/ I got 99 problems, but a [expletive] ain't one."
As fun as it is daring, "The Grey Album" is, if not the best album of this still-new year, then certainly its most creatively captivating. Danger Mouse has brought the Beatles into the hip-hop generation while giving props to the timeless innovation of the band, which through its boundary-breaking musical philosophy may have helped pave the way for the free-flowing deconstructionism of rap music.
Renee Graham's Life in the Pop Lane column runs on Tuesdays. She can be reached at email@example.com.