In “The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness’’ Kevin Young zigzags his way through the cultural firmament, connecting dots to form curious constellations: De La Soul to Eddie Murphy to Johnny Cash; Langston Hughes to John Coltrane to Jimi Hendrix; Notorious B.I.G. to Charlie Parker; “Rapper’s Delight’’ to “Another One Bites the Dust.’’
Young, the author of seven collections of poetry, takes the title of his latest work, a collection of critical essays, from producer Brian “Danger Mouse’’ Burton’s mash-up between Jay-Z’s 2003 “The Black Album’’ and the Beatles 1968 “The White Album.’’ The meaning behind the “Danger Mouse’’ metaphor serves as the foundation for the poet’s exhaustive and ambitious first dive into prose.
Burton’s “Grey Album’’ was a loaded concept. Now eight years old, the album married the a cappella version of Jay-Z’s pseudo swan-song with the sounds of rock’s untouchable quartet as a way of telling people that Jay-Z deserved to be mentioned in the same breath as the group from Liverpool. However Young doesn’t linger on the specifics of Burton’s experiment. Instead he spends much of his time asking why black art or poetry or music needs to be examined through a white lens at all.
Along his journey Young navigates through layers of black music - from soul to funk to jazz to hip-hop to gospel to freedom songs. And he uses each genre to question “contradictions of race (and success) [that] run throughout American life and, not coincidentally, African American thought.’’ The idea is interesting, complicated, and gnarled but also intriguing.
He connects rap’s predisposition to embellishment (rappers, with their onstage personas, are often considered kissing cousins to pro wrestlers) to what he calls “storying,’’ or “the way in which black writers have forged their own traditions, their own identities, even their own freedom.’’ At the same time he points out the poetry in the lyrics and draws back to the way black writers were discredited throughout history. Young notes that Phillis Wheatley, the 18th-century poet who was sold into slavery as a child, was condescended to as “imitative,’’ furthermore Thomas Jefferson once said that “among the blacks is misery enough, God knows, but no poetry.’’
It was a matter of diction and structure and learnedness (of which blacks were obviously deprived), Young writes, that undermined, “freedom of feeling’’ and “freedom of art.’’ Circuitously, Young draws the line between codes slaves used to find freedom and slang used by rappers to tell a story about a place they want to get to (always better than where they are) - the rhymes coding the directions for how to get there. “The spaces between performance and pain, between blackness as a problem and as possibility, illuminate the storying tradition,’’ he writes.
But Young affirms the beauty in African-Americans’ written and oral histories, and offers reasons to appreciate hip-hop’s place in it by showing just how much it leans on, and longs for, that history. He describes Richard Wright as a collagist. Then later says that sampling in hip-hop is both a musical and historical collage of sounds and statements.
The ideas are enough to drown in, and in organizing his thoughts Young writes like a reformed hoarder of history and culture, emptying out the intellectual closets of Americana and African-Americana and trying to sort through it all. But payoff in the connections is big; after reading about the cakewalk (white slave owners parodying black slaves who were originally parodying those white slave owners, who had no clue) it’s hard to take any of Andy Samberg’s rap spoofs seriously anymore.
Toward the end, after he’s sorted through the puzzle pieces, Young writes, “more than any other music, hip-hop is in love with lostness. It is always looking for a haystack in a needle.’’ As he wanders through the past, present, and future of both a culture and a people, Young seems to do the same.Julian Benbow can be reached at email@example.com.