Review: Mos Def’s “The Ecstatic”

Jun 11, 2009 4:36pm

    Not only does Mos Def stand as one of the last hopes for real, classic hip-hop in a pop-obsessed, shallow market, he also wants to consistently break new ground.  When too many rappers want to go with the trends and get the newest, “hot” producer, Mos Def is seemingly, wisely ignoring such glitziness and dismissing it for the mindless shine that it is.  Groundbreakers blaze their own paths and Mos is definitely one who will help reshape and redefine the notions of “high quality hip-hop.”  A little more than a decade ago, he began establishing himself, making guest appearances on records by like-minded rappers.  (Most notably, in 1996, his appearance on De La Soul’s “Big Brother Beat” made that track a standout on their “Stakes Is High” album.)  In 1998, he teamed up with Talib Kweli and recorded their now-classic Black Star album.  A year later, he released “Black On Both Sides,” a record which I personally think is one of the finest albums (hip-hop or otherwise) ever to be recorded.  Mos Def has a unique presence.  He combines the soulful likeability of Q-Tip and political focus of a peak-condition KRS-ONE.  One listen to that album’s dizzying, “Mathematics,” and you should be convinced.   Another “Black On Both Sides” standout, “Rock ‘N’ Roll,” found him experimenting with hardcore-punk.  It was his reaction to how some white musicians had misappropriated hip-hop.  He was going to reclaim rock because he could.  It was a smart move which separated him from the pack and created an interesting trick to show his versatility.   While this was going on, Mos had established himself as an actor.  He’s appeared in a number of movies over the years including “Be Kind, Rewind” and “The Italian Job.”  (He even made a memorable guest appearance on “House” a couple of months ago as a patient unable to speak or communicate. Virtually his whole role was delivered as a voice-over as we saw everything through his eyes.)  Perhaps due to an increasingly busy schedule, it took him five years to follow up “Black On Both Sides,” and he did so with “The New Danger,” an album which had its highlights, (like the bluesy “Bed-Stuy Parade & Funeral March”) but ultimately was a rather awkward showcase for his new rock band, Black Jack Johnson (a band consisting of members of Living Colour, Bad Brains and Parliament/Funkedelic.) This new rock side was interesting, but his venomous M.C. side seemed to be put on the back-burner.  Although there were a few close calls on the record, nothing quite grabbed the ear quite like earlier tracks like “New World Water.”   At the tail end of 2006, Mos came back with “True Magic,” a record seemingly thrown into the public’s hands before it was ready for release.  For some reason or another, the people at Geffen decided to release the album without proper packaging.  It was merely in a clear case with some copyright info and no paper. (The credits were on the web.)  An optimist would say that this might have been a move to save paper and be more “green.”  To many, it reeked of disrespect for one of the finest, brightest rappers to ever grab the mic.  Luckily, “True Magic” was closer to what hip-hop fans expected.  With tracks like the GZA-quoting “Crime And Medicine,” he showed he could still shine.  Even bolder was his visceral response to hurricane Katrina, “Dollar Day (Katrina Clap.)”  That track is indeed a highlight of his career.  While “True Magic” on the whole didn’t match the power of the Black Star record or “Black On Both Sides,” it was indeed a step back towards the right direction.   Now, Mos has released “The Ecstatic,” a challenging but tremendously exciting record.  Some things don’t change.  He’s got a new record label. (He’s now on Downtown Records.)  At least they gave his album packaging, even if it does seem rather minimal (a simple two-sheet blow-in with few liner notes.)  Combined with the obvious Mac “Photo Booth” picture on the inside it all seems rather puzzling.  At least the album’s cover is eye-catching.   You are reading this to find out about the actual record, though.  Let me tell you this.  If you are a pop-rap, top-forty-minded listener, this will be a difficult listen because it is at times extremely challenging  when it comes to bending hip-hop conventions. I say to you that you must soldier through.  It’s well-worth your time. This is one of the greatest, most sonically groundbreaking hip-hop records in some time.  Again, he may not quite be at the level he was on “Black On Both Sides,” but he’s really, really close.  In 2009, this is mandatory listening for any progressive hip-hop heads.   The record begins with “Supermagic,” commencing with a sound-bite about how we have to change our “miserable condition.” As the track bursts in, it combines an Indian-sounding vocal-snippet with a swirling, psychedelic, acid-rock guitar.  Mos blasts off, verbally ablaze while he incorporates the track’s title into a sentence that sounds much like “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”   It’s a mighty entrance, indeed.   Next is the grinding, horn-fueled, “Twilight Speedball.”   If Darth Vader was a wrestler or a boxer, this ominous, powerful track would be perfect music for his entrance.  Mos Def is all-powerful as he confidently declares, “Life is a game I heard the homies say. / Well, I came to win / I’m not here to play.”  He means business!  Madlib, the heavily respected, somewhat underground hip-hop producer released one of his “Beat Konducta” collections a year or so ago, collecting spare-snippets and instrumental beats with a distinctly Indian vibe.  In fact, the collection I’m referring was known as “Beat Konducta In India.”  Some of these beats found their way onto this album, giving it a distinct Eastern vibe, unusual in the soundscape of hip-hop.  Madlib’s track, “The Rip-Off (Scene 3),” provides the backdrop for this album’s “Wahid.”  Before that, however, Mos Def’s “Auditorium” uses Madlib’s “Movie Finale” (also taken from “Beat Konducta In India”) as its backbone.  Madlib’s beat brings to mind the inward-facing intimacy that RZA’s beats often brought to the Wu-Tang records.  In fact Mos’ delivery here is almost as inscrutable and as thick to decipher  as your average Wu verse.  He mentions scriptures with what comes off as an ancient, mystical wisdom and then says, “My presence speaks volumes before I say a word.”  Coming from a less charismatic rapper, this boast would sound arrogant.  In his case, he’s got an intangible quality which somehow makes this statement seem true.  Before you think this track can’t get any better, in comes an almost hushed-voiced Slick Rick!  (Here listed simply as “the Ruler.”)  Mos Def enthusiasts will remember that Black Star covered Rick’s “Children’s Story,” eleven years back.   At a mere 1:23, “Priority” would seem like a mere sketch if it didn’t have one of the best, most accessible beats on the record.  A soulful, jazzy piano provides a laid back, bouncy backdrop.  Horns come and go, mirroring that majestic piano line as Mos Def drops one of his tightest verses to date.  It’s amazing how effortless it all sounds.  He’s a master – a real musical force with complete intention on making his records last.  It’s that brand of art-house integrity which makes him much more than a rapper.   Earlier this week, when Mos Def appeared on “The Late Show With David Letterman,” he performed the intensely rhythmic single, “Quiet Dog Bite Hard” while playing the timpani drums.  One listen to the song and you can imagine that such a task must not have been easy.  His lyrics are rapidly executed throughout.  When playing, he had to keep up his demanding flow while drumming at a slightly different pace.  Perhaps seeing this demanding performance would change the minds of one or two of the curmudgeons out there who still doubt the musical validity of hip-hop.  Like the Roots, Mos Def is helping to change the idea of hip-hop simply consisting of rhyming over a beat.  Instrumentation is important!  On “Life In Marvelous Times,” he recalls his youth back in 1982, growing up in a project in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn.  The beat is gritty with an authoritative slam as dirty-sounding keyboards give the track a sense of urgency.   ”The Embassy” no doubt aims to disturb and make its listeners think.  It begins with a plane captain telling his passengers that they are flying over the Grand Canyon.  He then proceeds to tell them exactly what kind of gun he is “packing” up there in the cockpit in case anything goes down.  As he begins to describe this, the audio speeds up, slows down and gets warped and twisted.   In comes the beat which is alternates between a jazzy bass and an Eastern-toned concoction.  No doubt, Mos is making a statement about what it’s like in the fear-filled post-9-11 world.  Like many tracks on this album, it consists of one spare verse.  The sixteen tracks here fly by in a quick forty-six-minute span.   On “No Way Nada Mas,” Mos raps and soulfully sings in Spanish over a rather relaxed, subtle beat.  Again, the track lasts under two minutes.   ”Pistola” is next which is dynamic and funky as beat elements come and go.  Mos Def is an excellent singer.  He can sing his own hooks and he does so here quite well.  This song would make a great single with its classy vibes and his refrain of “Believe me when I tell you, I didn’t mean to break your heart.” During the verses, a thicker beat comes in which lyrically describes a gun fight as a metaphor for heartbreak.  
 Similarly, the bass-heavy “Pretty Dancer” stands as a highlight.  Mos Def is once again doing his best work!  He sings the hook again in “Worker’s Comp,” a two minute song about work, money and love with the refrain, “Everybody needs a job.”  Somehow in Mos Def’s hands this is way more than a showcase for “mindless materialism.”  In fact “mindless” is a word you would never use to describe him.  He’s one of the most intellectual M.C.s  around.  Here he uses the idea of employment as yet another relationship metaphor. It’s nothing short of an awe-striking exhibition of skill.   ”Revelations” is yet another two minute jam.  With its dense, moving  bass and instrumentation that sounds like it’s from an old sixties film strip, Mos is given a nice environment to blossom.  Lyrically, he has a quality here not unlike Doom.  This is one of the best tracks here as it uses the same vocal sample of someone shouting “Louder!” that the late, great J Dilla used on one of the tracks on his instrumental masterpiece “Donuts.”  After the darkness of “Revelations,” it’s time to get celebratory for a moment to break the tension.  On “Roses,” Mos actually ends up in more of an accompanying role.  The real spotlight goes on Georgia Anne Muldraw who sings the bulk of the song.  Mos Def is there to help her along when she needs an extra vocalist and their voices complement each other nicely.  It seems like an impromptu number you might see before a show at a jazz club before the crowd comes in.  It sounds natural and earthy.   Next, over a soulful groove which should be blasting out of apartment building windows all summer, Mos Def teams up with his friend Talib Kweli!  (The world needs another Black Star album! )  This track is proof that these two lyricists still have chemistry and when given a nice beat, they can still put lesser rappers to shame.  The song is “History,” and it’s nothing short of golden!  The album closes with the second single, “Casa Bey.”  The beat sounds like the funkiest music you would’ve ever heard played during the “Showcase Showdown” on “The Price Is Right.”  Combine that brand of kitsch with a pseudo disco presence and you get the idea.  The sound is dizzying and funky at the same time.  At four and a half minutes, it’s one of the longest tracks on the album and finds Mos Def doing what he does best.  His flow is tight when he’s rapping.  His voice is soulful when he’s singing.  It’s the ultimate capper to an excellent record.  ”The Ecstatic” is accurately named.   It’s an album to get excited about, especially if you’ve lost faith in the quality of mainstream hip-hop.  Like  Q-Tip’s album from last year, “The Renaissance,” this is a record which should be listened to for generations to come.  It doesn’t always take the easy route and it’s all the sweeter for the journey.  Mos Def is a hip-hop visionary.  There need to be more figures in hip-hop with similar senses of importance. You get the feeling that he wants to make records with the same longevity as the old soul, jazz and rock records which provided his inspiration. 
If you don’t like this record, odds are, you really don’t like hip-hop.  It’s that simple.  Behold, the return of the “Mighty Mos Def!”  

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