The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness

  • 2012
  • Graywolf Press
  • Paperback
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  • Winner, PEN Open Award
  • Winner of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize
  • A 2012 New York Times Notable Book
  • Finalist, 2013 National Book Critics Circle Award

Taking its title from Danger Mouse's pioneering mashup of Jay-Z's The Black Album and the Beatles' The White Album, this encyclopedic book combines essay, cultural criticism, and lyrical chorus to illustrate the African American tradition of lying-storytelling, telling tales, fibbing, improvising, "jazzing." What emerges is a persuasive argument for the many ways that African American culture is American culture, and for the centrality of art—and artfulness—to our daily lives. Moving from gospel to soul, funk to freestyle, Young sifts through the shadows, the bootleg, the remix, the grey areas of our history, literature, and music.

Reviews & Praise

Kevin Young is one of the most talented poets in the United States. With this new book, he should also become known as a major critic. The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness is not only one of the most learned historical surveys of African American (and American) culture, but also a supremely stylish tribute to generations of creative African Americans. Paul Devlin for San Francisco Chronicle

Like Duke Ellington's fabled, Harlem-bound A Train, Kevin Young's The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness propels us across a panorama of African American history, creativity and struggle with a lightning-brisk brilliance and purpose. Here's what happens when an acclaimed poet makes his first foray into nonfiction: madcap manifesto and rhapsodic reportage create a formidable blend of scholarship and memoir that tackles cultural and personal history in one breath. Young goes far beyond just being a documentarian of American Black identity—he shows us how Black identity is indispensable to American culture. The Grey Album is an ambitious, exhilarating, impassioned work of Black literary and cultural criticism, unlike any other—an inspired, sweeping book that deserves to be savored and celebrated. PEN American Center's Open Award Judges' Citation

A poet's lively account of the central place of the trickster figure in black American culture could have been called 'How Blacks Invented America.' New York Times Book Review

Dense and brilliant . . . [Kevin Young's] book walks that fine line between improvisatory elan and academic precision with an enviable sureness. The Grey Album is a work of syncretic cultural criticism, a mosaic of ideas, quotations, analyses, lyrics, and allusions, diffuse yet cumulatively masterful. Punning, questioning, riffing, mixing street syntax with formal exegesis, Young weaves a counter-story to the mainstream of American culture, showing once again how 'American culture is black culture' and how race has 'become a metaphor for the modern era.' The Washington Post

[A] slick and witty critique of just what constitutes blackness in the mainstream. While the title pays homage to the popular Jay-Z-and-Beatles mashup album, the book takes a critical look at how mass media and popular culture portray black culture. Through a collection of narratives and essays, Young makes a compelling argument that black culture is, indeed, American culture. Joshua Weaver for The Root

Equal parts blues shout, church sermon, interpretive dance, TED talk, lit-crit manifesto and mixtape, the poet Kevin Young's first nonfiction book, The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness, is an ambitious blast of fact and feeling, a nervy piece of performance art. The book, which takes its title from Danger Mouse's mash-up of the Beatles' 'The White Album' and Jay-Z's 'Black Album,' is its own kind of collage. It rummages around in the work of African-American writers and musicians—from Bessie Smith and Langston Hughes to Lauryn Hill and Colson Whitehead—and makes a series of sly arguments for black art's centrality in American culture writ large. THE GREY ALBUM is layered with criss-crossing arguments, notably one about the importance of 'storying' (artful deceit) in African-American narratives.... The book contains fragments of Mr. Young's own intellectual biography. It is, as he puts it, 'the story of what I read, heard, and saw at the crossroads of African-American and American culture, which, as we shall see, may be much the same rocky road.'...this book is alive and heterodox....This book is the work of a man who, correctly, calls himself a 'poet and a collector and now a curator,' one devoted to saving 'what we didn't even know needed saving. Dwight Garner for The New York Times

Young spins his essays and cultural criticism into a shadow history of how black music and literature, and the African-American tradition of "jazzing" (or lying) have remixed American culture. Vanity Fair

Kevin Young is full of surprises: a Midwest native who's long lived on both coasts; a classically educated scholar (Harvard, Stanford and Brown) who's fluent in field and street musical idioms from blues, jazz and soul to hip-hop, funk and DJ mixtapes; a black man whose keen interest in African-American culture and tradition steers him to their important influence on the works of Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. His poetry has already won several awards—as well as earning a National Book Award nomination—and his first major work of nonfiction, The Grey Album, is the winner of the 2010 Graywolf Nonfiction Prize. It's a personal, scholarly, far-reaching and innovative study of the role of "storying" in the history of American culture, particularly African-American culture....The pleasures in The Grey Album, however, are not just those of learning erudite details of black American history, but also those of hearing the impassioned impressions of a poet diving deep into his own personal history. Young entertains as much as he teaches and broadens our understanding of the unifying threads of the country's cultural traditions...with a poet's flair, a musician's tone and a scholar's care. Shelf Awareness (starred review)

The real stunner in the collection is a tour de force by the poet Kevin Young called "It Don't Mean a Thing: The Blues Mask of Modernism." In placing the blues at the center of the Modernist movement, Young's essay—with its voice, breadth, cynicism, idealism, pragmatism, weariness, guts, and sheer writerly virtuosity—is itself an enactment of the blues, how the blues are "defiant and existential and necessary. Knox News

Young is an incandescently innovative poet and a self-described collector and curator profoundly inspired by music (from spirituals to the blues, bebop, funk, and hip-hop), African American history, popular culture, and literature (Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, Gwendolyn Brooks, Alice Walker). In his first prose book, an expansive and radiantly interpretive exploration of "black creativity," he proves to be an exceptionally fluent, evocative, deepdiving, and bracing critic. Young's intention is to spotlight "the centrality of black people to the American experience, to the dream of America," and his unifying theme is "the notion of lying—the artful dodge" and "storying," the "black codes" and fictions African Americans use to escape and deflect racist reality.... From the black trickster tradition to comedian Bert Williams, Langston Hughes, Bob Kaufman (the "black Rimbaud"), Charlie Parker, James Brown, Danger Mouse (the source of the book's title), and many other artists, Young reads, listens, and observes with acute, questing attention, following "underground railroads of meaning" and tracing artistic lineages and bursts of fresh invention. As intricate and ingenious as his critiques are, Young is confiding, poignant, appreciative, witty, and poetic: 'I don't mean to taxonomize but to rhapsodize. Take it from me—mean mean mean to be free.' Booklist (Starred review)

In this elegant and informative study, poet and English professor, Young weaves a saga of African-American culture, in particular literature and music. Young moves through slave narratives and spirituals and beatniks and funk in a multifaceted yet coherent work comprising history, analysis, and theory. Young offers fresh, incisive assessments of myriad writers and musicians, performers all of the storytelling and counterfeiting conventions and traditions. He focuses on George Moses Horton, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and Langston Hughes before shifting the focus to music, where his attention encompasses, among other genres, be-bop and hip-hop, the blues, and soul music. He includes unlikely figures throughout in this "story of what I read, heard, and saw at the crossroads of African American and American culture": Eliot, Pound, Picasso; the cakewalk, the quilt; the Rolling Stones. Publishers Weekly

The Grey Album is a page-turning dynamo. Here's a surge that nudges the reader into a bluesy terrain; its panoramic wit and critical certainty cut through the hokum and reveal a timbre of endurance. The Grey Album resonates like a spasm band, generating waves of intimate discourse on black music, literature, entertainment, culture, folklore, and American history. The collection of essays is propelled by a kinetic passion that's heroic, tessellating on the page into its postmodern shape. This poet-critic has created an unforgettable, robust trove of insights and lyrical gestures for us to query and embrace. Yusef Komunyakaa

The prolific brilliance of Kevin Young's poetry is well-known. But with The Grey Album the secret is out: Young is one of the finest critics writing today. His fierce intellect moves deftly across genres and time periods. The guiding sensibilities that have made him such a smart and wide-ranging editor are only his starting points in these essays. This book is more than ambitious: it realizes its gigantic aims and does justice to the tragic, hilarious, gorgeous, and mighty American culture he writes about. The work is undergirded by the greatness of the music he so reveres; blues and jazz and hip-hop culture are his business here, not only the music itself. He seems to have gobbled up everything but sounds like no one but himself. Young bridges generations and moves nimbly between art forms. Look sharp so as not to miss a single insight; each essay contains revelations. Young sees the world from a totally fresh perspective, and every page of this book shimmers. Elizabeth Alexander