Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton made his name making hip hop, creating an extraordinary calling card for his production skills back in 2004 when he angered EMI Records by daring to sample The Beatles. He manufactured an intricate tapestry out of the music from The Beatles’ White Album and Jay-Z’s rapping on his Black Album, calling it The Grey Album. You still won’t find it on Spotify for copyright reasons but it launched a stellar career producing Adele, U2, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Gorillaz, writing a UK number one as half of Gnarls Barkley and winning the 2011 Grammy for Producer of the Year.
So it’s surprising that, aside from forming Dangerdoom with the late rapper MF Doom for one album in 2005, and executive producing ASAP Rocky’s album At.Long.Last.ASAP in 2015, Burton has largely stayed away from rappers since. Understandably, anticipation is high for a union with Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter, frontman of hip hop band The Roots, which Trotter first revealed in 2020 and said had been in the pipeline for “13 or 14 years”.
Even so, fans of Burton’s other work – cinematic and orchestral with Karen O on Lux Prima, funky and retro as half of Broken Bells – won’t feel lost here. The samples feel dusty, rich and atmospheric. Sometimes opens the album with grandose strings and a sample of a male soul singer in full flight before Black Thought enters, unhurried, crisp and eloquent. There isn’t much connection with the current rap scene, aside from guest appearances from the relatively youthful ASAP Rocky, Joey Badass and Dylan Cartlidge. The music has more in common with the crackly sample hopping of Nineties Wu-Tang Clan, whose member Raekwon pops up over the smooth piano line of The Darkest Part.
There’s also plenty to connect it with the organic instrumentation and easy grooves of the recent albums by UK collective Sault. Again there’s a personnel link: Michael Kiwanuka, who has sung with Sault and whose last abum was produced by both Danger Mouse and Sault’s Inflo, is here singing the distant chorus amid the soft keyboards and contrastingly urgent beats of Aquamarine.
As with Burton’s earliest work, the music sounds densely layered and sophisticated, the attention to detail so thorough that these new songs already have the vintage air of material that has existed for decades. Hearing his distinctive style with rappers on top is a rare treat but it still feels like these new songs are familiar favourites.