Because someone had to do it.
By now we’ve all heard the story. Jay-Z, moved by his desire to retain love from the streets even he admits he has sold out, breaks label tradition and releases the a cappella version of his “last” album, The Black Album (does anyone else think he just wanted to say this was his last album so he would have something new to rhyme about on it?). About 4.2 billion deejays do their best to come up with clever titles and forgettable beats for the merely adequate lyrics (sorry Jay, but you’re the Tom Hanks of hip-hop). People forget to notice that the producers are what mattered and continue to be amused by The Brown Album, The Blue Album, The Off-White Album and The Color of Money Album, which uses beats exclusively culled from Tom Cruise dialogue.
But only one producer has the simple yet brilliant concept all the others were looking for: The Grey Album, Jay-Z’s lyrics over beats made with just the Beatles’ White Album (see, grey is between — ah, you get the idea). The concept is perfect, everything works out great, and the record even gets covered by MTV. What’s that? If you’re doing illegal things you shouldn’t talk about them on MTV? Well, one cease and desist order later, it’s almost impossible to get a hold of a copy of the Grey Album. I got mine off the Internet. Let me know if you have any trouble.
A story is just that and, unfortunately, so is a concept. No matter how clever you think this record is, one day you are going to put it on and say, “I don’t give a shit that this is Jay-Z and the Beatles. Where’s the fucking beef?” Fortunately, it’s there, and it’s not hard to find.
An almost IDM take on “Julia” turns “Dirt off Your Shoulder” into an interesting song and fares almost as well as what is probably the crown jewel here: “December 4th,” mixed over “Mother Nature’s Son.” Each mix is shocking at first, but once you get used to it, you realize how well it works. Everything is on beat, the starts and stops fit perfectly with the lyrics, and you can almost see Jay writing his lyrics to some of these choices, though certainly not all of them. No matter how well “Encore” works here, I just can’t think of Jay nodding his head to “Glass Onion.”
A few songs would be better just left alone, like the already excellent “What More Can I Say” and “My 1st Song.” Some of them should have been left alone even before they went onto The Black Album (“Justify My Thug,” anyone?). But even these songs are strong, and most of what is here can be placed next to the original with confidence, even arrogance. Ignoring the original sources and just looking at this record not as a project or a concept is more fulfilling than you would think.