THE GREY ALBUM by Kevin Young


On the Blackness of Blackness
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African-American self-creation in literature and music receives a meandering study.

Young, a National Book Award finalist in poetry (Jelly Roll, 2003, etc.) and academic (Atticus Haygood Professor/Emory Univ.), takes nearly 400 overstuffed pages to arrive at a two-page consideration of the titular Danger Mouse mashup of Jay-Z and the Beatles. Many readers may be enervated by then. Young uses “storying”—the “lies” spun by black artists to form their personal and artistic identities—as the purported foundation for his sprawling tome, which stretches from the post-slavery 19th century to the rap era. Writers like Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright and poets—especially Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, and Bob Kaufman—are the focus in the early going, though prewar blues and such performers as Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday also figure prominently. Young’s shotgun methodology and his propensity for pointless riffing and overwrought observation obscure any thread that might keep readers in touch with his supposed theme. The writing becomes a farrago of unfocused research, leaden academic language, incongruous snippets of autobiography and excruciatingly contorted textual readings. Even his most personal and thoughtful chapter, about Beat master Kaufman, manages to dilute the poet’s crackling musicality. In later chapters, the author makes a case for postwar African-American music—bebop, soul, the free-swinging rock of Jimi Hendrix, disco, hip-hop—as foundational postmodernism. Though he manages to drop sharp, highly personalized science about the import of rap artists like Run-DMC, Public Enemy and NWA, his explications are so fatiguing that readers will lose patience before Young closes his argument. Young strives for encyclopedic scope, but the narrative is ultimately shapeless.

An imaginary textbook for a daunting Black Studies course that very few students would want to take for credit.

Pub Date: March 13th, 2012
ISBN: 978-1-55597-607-1
Page count: 476pp
Publisher: Graywolf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1st, 2012


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