Everything about it sounds like a gimmick. I mean, really: a cappella rhymes from Jay-Z’s
Black Album layered over looped samples from The Beatles’ classic
White Album (without permission from EMI) was destined to draw some kind of controversy. And what an interesting controversy it was, bringing up the increasingly relevant questions of sampling, plagiarism, and ultimately, who deserves credit for what in the music industry.
I find it a particularly good question to ask in the context of this album, considering that Jay-Z is not bound to make a clear reference of every quote he adopts into his rap. Rap is all about reference. There’s no liner note in the Black Album that says “insane in the membrane” is a Cypress Hill line, frankly because that would be ridiculous and unnecessary. Don’t hear me arguing for any particular ethic on the subject. I just think it’s an interesting question to ask – where is the line drawn when it comes to copyright?
Personally, it’s difficult for me to see Danger Mouse’s work as anything other than an art form. I recently completed a class where we all had to work on a creative project and present our art to one another. A pattern I quickly noticed was how many of the students had chosen fairly rigid forms to create forced restrictions for themselves to work within, such as the sonnet form. On the Grey Album, Danger Mouse is only allowing himself to work with two albums from very different artists, and the results are stunning. Who would have thought that someone could mix Jay-Z with The Beatles in a way that would be even listenable? Yet here, a whole collection of songs is completed, and for the most part, they work very well, meanwhile making an interesting comment on racism and mainstream pop-culture.
I was amazed at how often I completely forgot that it was the White Album being sampled; the song felt so cohesive as if meant to originally sound like that. Even songs that were originally awkward grew comfortable for me, like 99 Problems over Helter Skelter – two very strong tracks on their own. Most of the listening of this album was on my iPod since my roommates aren’t huge fans of rap, and also because I got these new Sennheiser headphones that I wanted to spend some time with. Consequently, I was doing a lot of transit riding and walking to the Grey Album. Several times I felt a little like I was in a Black and White music video – making the album’s title even more appropriate considering Vancouver this time of year. Seeing the city around me without color hardly took a stretch of my imagination.
Yet, as grey as it was, I couldn’t help but lift my chin a little higher, walking to Jay-Z’s cocky rhymes, and sometimes brushing that dirt of my shoulder. At one point I was reflecting on how I felt about Jay-Z regularly using a play on the (mispronounced) name of the biblical God, “Jehovah”. I’ll admit, sometimes I’m a little uncomfortable with it, but I couldn’t help but notice how he contrasts pride with vulnerability by referring to himself by his birth name, Shawn, especially in December 4th.
I will always remember this record as a high point of the Ohsies music in that it combined two of the biggest names in music of the decade (Danger Mouse also created Gnarles Barkley), with one of the biggest bands of the century, and is simply hard not respect. A lot.