Sach O doesn’t think you should be impressed by the use of the word marvelous.
The year is 1999: Cash Money has just knocked Master P out the box and Def Jam is ruling the airwaves with blockbuster releases by Ja Rule, Jay-Z and DMX. The underground rap scene is tentatively moving from the 12’’ single format to full on album releases while Stones Throw and Def Jux, labels that would revolutionize the indie scene during the next decade are dropping their first projects. Though the Hip-Hop landscape is increasingly fragmented, every set has its heroes and for the Rawkus/Okayplayer contingent no emcee shines brighter at the end of the millennium than the Mighty Mos Def. Dropping the acclaimed Black on Both Sides, Mos embodies the promise of the post-Tribe era combining Q-Tip’s vocal style and topical reach with a harder edged flow and an aggressive BK attitude. The album becomes one of Rawkus’ greatest successes, going gold and setting the stage for Mos to become one of the decade’s most prominent emcees.
Then things fall apart. (No Roots)
Rawkus’s merger with Geffen, the financial lure of Hollywood and an increasing lack of musical cohesion take the wind out of Dante Smith’s musical sails. The New Danger is unpolished, under-promoted and mostly ignored by a fan base that has already moved on while Tru3 Magic is alternately viewed as either a disaster or ignorable contract filler. With Mos Def increasingly devoting his time and energy to the silver screen, few hope for a return to the hard hitting emcee of old.
Well it’s 2009 and you can call it a comeback: Mos Def has finally dropped the album you’ve been waiting for after a decade lost in the wilderness. No, The Ecstatic isn’t Black on Both Sides, trading in his debut’s New York classicism for Californian abstraction and world-beat aspirations–but it’s proof that when focused, Mos is one of the most charismatic and interesting emcees out there. Featuring few choruses, unorthodox song-structures and production by Madlib, Oh No and Georgia Ann Muldrow of Stones Throw, the album mirrors fellow Soulquarian Erykah Badu’s New Amerykah in defining a post-Dilla sound.
Whereas Erykah’s album was dark and foreboding, Mos Def’s is positively… well, ecstatic. Freed from expectations and major label red tape, Mos is practically reborn on the mic, rhyming, singing and chanting with more zest than we’ve seen from him all decade. Dropping heat over Oh No’s Turkish Psych, Chad Hugo’s blacksploitation minimalism and Madlib’s Bollywood boom-bap, the album’s first half is a shockingly direct slab of rap music from a man last seen lost in a neo-soul quagmire.
Even more surprising, the middle section produced by unknowns Mr. Flash and Preservation is almost as strong, with highlight “Quiet Dog” showcasing Mos’ liquid flow over pumping bass that’s, dare I say it, danceable. Album closer and first single “Casa Bey” repeats the feat, hinting that if he so chose, Mos would be just as capable of producing dancefloor banger as thoughtful meditations on class and race. The potential is intriguing: am I the only one who’d rather hear Mos Def over Switch beats than M.I.A?
Ultimately, the more grounded production on The Ecstatic remains a blessing, allowing Mos the space to cut loose and experiment. Seemingly inspired by MF Doom and Ghostface at their most unhinged, Mos Def remains the star of the show, never allowing the focus to drift from his voice and lyrics. The penultimate track, an aggressive bit of nostalgia reuniting him with J Dilla and fellow Black Star Talib Kweli is the closest we get to the “old” Mos and it’s unsurprisingly one of the album’s most immediate moments.
Give the album a couple of listens however and seemingly minor songs such as the circular story of “The Embassy” and the Intruders-interpolating ballad “Pistola” reveal themselves to be just as intriguing as BOBS’s anthems. This combination of old and new keeps the album fresh, reminding listeners of why they became Mos Def fans in the first place while giving them plenty of reasons to anticipate future releases. Much like Born like This from the aforementioned DOOM, this record is a grower and if its uncompromising form is a difficult sell in a year where rap has gone straight up pop, it’s also perfect for those looking for the grit and authenticity Mos promised all those years ago.