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The Grey Album On the Blackness of Blackness

Kevin Young

Graywolf Press




476 Pages



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Winner of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize

Taking its title from Danger Mouse's pioneering mashup of Jay-Z's The Black Album and the Beatles' The White Album, Kevin Young's encyclopedic book combines essay, cultural criticism, and lyrical choruses 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 life. 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.


Praise for The Grey Album

"It's the perfect combination of remembrance and cultural critique."—Wesley Morris, Slate

"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' 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 . . . [Young], who was born in Lincoln, Neb., in 1970—he got his B.A. from Harvard and his M.F.A. from Brown—moves easily from humor to bleaker, more complex material . . . He's a deft reader of the artists themselves, and a committed sampler of other people's work. I'd guess that fully one-quarter of the words in The Grey Album aren't his own. He mixes and matches quotations well; it's one of this book's joys . . . The Grey Album is most lovely, I think, in the acknowledgment Mr. Young gives to the writers and musicians whose work nourished him. He'll have you rushing to read the improvisational poet Bob Kaufman, to cook from Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor's Vibration Cooking or to listen to Jimi Hendrix's 'Star-Spangled Banner' or N.W.A.'s 'Straight Outta Compton' with fresh ears. I kept notes in the margins with the titles of at least a dozen songs—from the blues to rap—that I'll want to download. He puts buzz in your brain . . . 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.' The Grey Album, warts and all, is a rallying cry."—Dwight Gardner, The New York Times

Reviews from Goodreads



  • Kevin Young

  • Kevin Young is the author of seven collections of poetry, including Ardency and Jelly Roll: A Blues, a finalist for the National Book Award. He is a curator and the Atticus Haygood Professor at Emory University.