Kevin Young’s book The Grey Album represents a notable moment in the contemporary study of African American literature. First, single works like Young’s that present or theorize links between dozens of African American artists [End Page 179] from so many different eras are increasingly rare. Second, relatively few professors and perhaps even fewer well-known poets write such expansive African American cultural histories. Finally, the level of coverage that Young’s book received in popular news outlets was quite uncommon for a scholarly work on African American literature.
The Grey Album is also the title of DJ Danger Mouse’s mash-up of Jay Z’s The Black Album with instrumentals from The Beatles’ The White Album. At the core of Young’s book is the notion of “storying,” a catch-all term for multiple creative approaches that black folks have employed to relay accounts of their experiences or express themselves. Those approaches include slanted truths, outright lies, “the blues code of life, tragic, and comic,” “learning to write on the sly,” “Henry Box Brown mailing himself to freedom,” “slaves composing poems for money to buy their freedom,” “passing,” “not Sally Hemmings [sic] but the story of Sally Hemmings and her descendants we always knew ’bout,” “dreambooks,” “the human beatbox,” and more (3-4). Young’s The Grey Album is in part about literature, in part about music, in part about encompassing “most everything” in a cultural history, and largely about black creativity (16).
Young covers considerable ground, identifying and explaining key and interconnected aspects of an expansive body of writers and artists, including Phillis Wheatley, Bessie Smith, James Weldon Johnson, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, James Brown, Tupac, Lauryn Hill, and Colson Whitehead, to name some of the many figures whose careers and works Young discusses. He devotes extended attention to Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, and Beat writer Bob Kaufman, and offers a discussion of modernism in seeking to locate its “origins specifically in black culture. The change, the roar, the very swing in the ‘Anglo’ culture, might well be said to be exactly this too-often invisible African American influence” (138).
In the closing sections of the book, Young moves to another kind of poetry by concentrating on rap music. Although we now have several superb scholarly works on hip hop, Young makes a unique contribution to the field by frequently drawing links to the genre, other musical and literary traditions, and his own cultural development. Among other insightful observations, Young notes that rap music “sought to show and prove that it ain’t a question of using the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house, but of what you do with your skills, taking your beats and rhythms from anywhere—the street, mainstream culture, dirt roads, obscure records, seemingly incongruous cultures, and ultimately, from your own flow—and rhyming over them” (343). Those signature qualities of hip hop are, consequently, integral to Young’s scholarly approach.
His inclinations as a poet and former deejay are on full display in The Grey Album as he incorporates or samples familiar lines from poetry and African American folk sayings into his observations throughout the book. At best, his approach enlivens conventional scholarly prose and embeds the book with a broad sense of black consciousness, demonstrating in the process Young’s intelligence and skills at absorbing enormous bodies of information concerning American and African American literatures, music, and expressive cultures. At the same time, the use of folk sayings, poetic lines, and lyrics does obscure rather than clarify some of Young’s observations, at moments.
Young’s search for and presentation of a unifying feature of African American expressive culture corresponds to Henry Louis Gates’s notion of Signifying, and before that, Eugene B. Redmond’s suggestion in his groundbreaking book Drumvoices (1976), that coded, rhythmic patterns unite black poetic expression across hundreds of years from Africa to the modern writings of black writers in the U. S. Even farther back, Young’s examinations of black culture recall Ralph Ellison’s considerations in Shadow...