Thanks to the talents of enterprising remixers, Jay-Z’s The Black Album is available in a lot more versions than just clean or explicit.
Last month the Roc released The Black Album on vinyl with no beats underneath Jay’s bravura lyrics, spurring producers and DJs to rework his farewell disc into creations such as The Brown Album and even The Grey Album, which combines Jay’s words with music from the Beatles’ The White Album.
“I think it’s real good,” Young Guru, who engineers most of Jay’s recordings, said of the trend. “From Jay’s perspective, he was real conscious of it. When we were doing album listening for The Black Album, he was playing a song and he looked around the room and only a couple of people got [what he was saying]. Then he asked me to play it a cappella and he looked around the room and everybody got it. He really saw the difference.”
Guru said Jay then told him he wanted to break with the Roc’s tradition of not releasing a cappella 12-inches, so producers could “remix the hell out of it.”
Former A Touch of Jazz producer Kevin Brown was one of the first to do so, crafting the jazz- and funk-infused The Brown Album. “To tell the truth, I really wasn’t going to do it,” Brown said. He was leery because he knew other producers and DJs would be making their own remixes and he was a fan of the original. Eventually, though, friends convinced Brown to try his hand at it.
“I was just gonna take whatever old beats I had, but once I got into it, I was like, ‘If I’m gonna do it, I’mma do it for real.’ Plus with The Black Album, a lot of his hooks have melodies, so you can’t just throw whatever beat you have lying around underneath it. The beat has to be in tune.”
Brown’s hardest undertaking was the Timbaland-produced “Dirt Off Your Shoulder.” “Timbaland is pretty straight-ahead,” Brown said. “There’s not a lot of swing to his beat, so the first beat I had for ‘Dirt Off Your Shoulder’ didn’t fit with his vocals. I had to make another beat with a more on-point time signature. I still couldn’t make the hook fit exactly, so I ended up [rapping] the hook on it.”
When Kno of the Atlanta rap troupe CunninLynguists crafted his rhythmically abstract Kno vs. Hov: The White Album, he said it was just a matter of opening his ears before he hit the beat machine.
“You have to really listen to the lyrics and get a gist of what the person was trying to get across,” Kno said. “Like, ‘OK, where am I gonna drop the beat out? Where am I gonna add a changeup?’ It’s pretty much just paying attention to the lyrics and getting their vibe across.”
Kno used beats he already had in the stash for half the album, and for the other half he devised new soundscapes. “I wanted to re-create the whole album and give one mood to the album,” he explained. “I really enjoyed the original, though. I still listen to it. Releasing an a cappella version of The Black Album, all you’re doing is extending a buzz. It kinda takes on a life of its own. People may be still talking about it in some other form. They’re talking about the original but also talking about these remixes. I think more major labels should do that.”
Another notable reworking, DJ Lt. Dan Presents The Black Album Remixes: Back to Basics, uses famous instrumentals by Brooklyn hip-hop acts such as Black Moon and Masta Ace.
Of all the remixes, the most talked about lately and one of the most interesting in concept is The Grey Album, from Los Angeles producer Danger Mouse. Like most good ideas, it’s deceptively simple: take Jay-Z’s The Black Album and layer its vocals over one of rock’s most ambitious musical masterpieces, the Beatles’ The White Album.
Over two and a half weeks in December, Danger Mouse engineered new beats culled from the sounds of The White Album, cribbing drum hits, plundering piano loops and stealing guitar riffs before meshing them into recognizable but recontextualized riffs. “For me, it was an obvious thing to do,” Danger Mouse said. “I’m a big Jay-Z fan. Always have been. Same thing with the Beatles. … And once I got the idea to do this, I had to do it before anyone else.”
What makes The Grey Album so ambitious is how Danger Mouse engineered the beats to fit the personalities of the original songs. On The Black Album’s “What More Can I Say,” Jay-Z reflects on his success, seemingly already nostalgic about his top-of-the-hill status on what is ostensibly his retirement album. On The Grey Album, Danger Mouse renders the same sentiment by flipping the shuffling drums and mournful piano of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”
The Rick Rubin-produced “99 Problems” framed Jay-Z’s boastful bravado with beats that resurrected rap’s early homage to rock breaks. The Grey Album’s version does the same thing, using the sneering guitars of “Helter Skelter.”
“You can throw an a cappella over the beat and as long as they’re the same [time], it’ll somewhat match. But it doesn’t mean it’ll feel natural,” Danger Mouse explained. “I didn’t want it to sound that kind of way. I wanted to make sure I had the feelings of the song.”
What The Grey Album also has seemed to do is open up Jay-Z to rock fans in a way that his street-reared, club-ready anthems have not. And it may do the same for rap fans who didn’t know they liked the Beatles.
“I love the Beatles, but nobody knows that there’s breaks in there,” said Chad Hugo of the Neptunes, who produced two songs on The Black Album. After hearing The Grey Album for the first time, he nodded in approval. “This is dirty,” he said.