Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Review: Mos Def - The Ecstatic

Rating: 7.8
Released: June 9, 2009
Downtown Records

A funny thing happened on the way to reviewing Mos Def's comeback The Ecstatic.

Two days ago, I started with a rating hovering somewhere around a 6.

But each time I queued the record up, what before seemed like a jumbled mess of foreign instruments, breakbeats and tone-deaf choruses now sounded like a pitch-perfect love letter to planet Earth.

Suffice to say, Mos Def's latest is somewhere around an 8 for me today.

This is why I listen to LPs multiple times before I dare to make some form of a critical assessment.

Aside from his award-winning Hollywood output, a stellar guest turn here and there (I'm looking at "Two Words" from Kanye West's debut) and a pair of mish mash albums, the actor/rapper (we've got a slashie here) has been quiet in recent years.

Flash back to 1999. Mos Def was just the latest hip hop savior with a smooth flow, social awareness and penchant for experimentation.

His collaboration with Talib Kweli and soulful solo turn Black On Both Sides made the Brooklyn-born MC a breath of fresh air for hip hop fans exhausted by lyrical beef and gunplay.

It wasn't long before Hollywood stole Mos Def away. Our loss, but the good news is he's back in the studio and trying a little harder, at least for now.

The Ecstatic is just that, ecstatic.

These are good times for left-leaning political pariahs with street cred, although Mos Def doesn't let the good times hamper his skill for bucking the system. See Common's goofy Universal Mind Control if you want to see how happiness can sometimes dull a once sharp wit.

If you think Mos Def is satisfied with having the first black president in office, look no further than the album-opening Malcolm X monologue on the need for extremism. It would seem there is more work to be done.

"Ecstatic, ecstatic, ecstatic," he chants moments later.

What follows is roughly 45 minutes of Middle Eastern instruments, electro-tinged hip hop, antique Madlib samples and Mos Def's ruminating, anti-gangsta presence.

"Sometimes it's too hard to sit still/ things are so passionate, times are so real/ sometimes I try to chill mellow down blowin smoke/ smile on my face but it's really no joke/ you feel it in the streets the people breathe without hope," he raps over classic film scores on the outstanding "Auditorium."

The recipe for comeback success in rap often involves a good producer. In Mos Def's case, he's got six - Madlib, Preservation, Chad Hugo, Mr. Flash, J Dilla, and Madlib's brother Oh No - and they're all up to the task.

Madlib and Preservation provide the best beats, the latter cooking up a storm in the grainy minimalist "Quiet Dog Bite Hard."

Mos Def seems most at home on the simple, jazz-infused samples, although multiple tracks showcase a traveler's flair for world-savvy pop, including the MC's ode to hotels "The Embassy."

Still, The Ecstatic isn't perfect.

There probably isn't much of an audience for Mos Def's tuneless singing on Latin ballad "No Hay Nada Mas," and electronic stompers like "Life In Marvelous Times" seem oddly out of place on an album that only occasionally masquerades as pop.

Mos Def might be front and center on the big screen, but he seems more comfy trolling the hip hop underground.

Perhaps best of all is his 90-second manifesto "Priority," a mellow builder that sums up all things Mos Def.

"Top priority: Peace before everything/God before anything/love before anything/real before everything/home before anyplace," he riffs in street preacher mode.

The proof is in the pudding.
Acts like Eminem and Lil Wayne may be the body of hip hop, but MCs like Mos Def are its soul.

- SoR

1 comment:

nrockway said...

great review, but oh no is actually madlib's brother.