Zilla Rocca is the illegitimate son of Marvelous Marvin Hagler.
I believe in album covers telling you precisely where artists are in their lives at that moment, so when you compare the covers from Mos Def’s breakthrough classic Black on Both Sides to The New Danger, you see a man once open and calm now hidden and confrontational. Before it’s release, Mos Def was still thought of as the smiling, critically acclaimed artist who wrote “Umi Says,” starred in “The Italian Job” and “Brown Sugar,” and owned a bookstore with Talib Kweli. Mos viewed himself differently.
The New Danger arrived in 2004, a full five years after Black on Both Sides. It was lambasted upon its release, almost on the level of Raekwon’s Immobilarity (still the worst follow-up to a classic album ever). I worked at a record store at the time, and people who bought the CD on Tuesday came back to return it on Wednesday. They HATED this album, and rightfully so: musically, it was all over the place. Whereas Black Star and Black on Both Sides were concise, warm, and well thought out albums, The New Danger was dark, scattered, and bizarre. It was also 75 minutes long: a nine minute ode to Marvin Gaye sat next to freestyles over “No Idea’s Original” and “The Takeover.” Mos Def the Soulful Vocalist was mashed next to Mos Def The Pantera Enthusiast next to Mos Def The Underrated Street Philosopher.
People expected The New Danger to follow the vibes of “Ms. Fat Booty,” “Respiration,” “Definition,” and “Oh No.” Instead, The New Danger is more of a continuation of the song “Rock n Roll” off BOBS. Mos was not fucking with Limp Bizkit or Kid Rock. Mos spent the years after Black on Both Sides touring with his band Black Jack Johnson (the band had to change their name with the emergence of Chill Bro Supreme Jack Johnson). Black Jack Johnson was a murderers row of musicians from Bad Brains, Funkadelic, and Living Colour. This was not some Okayplayer shit.
“In my estimation, there’s a lot of rock bands sort of just fiddling with hip-hop, and a lot of hip-hop bands sort of fiddling with rock. I don’t want to fiddle, you know? I mean, I listen to Black Sabbath and Bad Brains and, you know, Fugazi and Pantera. I’m looking for something that is rocking along those lines, that’s just got some teeth to it.
I don’t want to do something
that’s sugary or glamorous.”
— Mos Def, Billboard 2001.
By the time The New Danger dropped, remnants of the band’s shelved album were scattered in the tracklist along with traditional beats from a new collaborator, producer Minnesota. Mos met Minnesota while he was hosting Def Poetry on HBO–Minny was the in-house musical director. Minny’s claim to fame was producing “I’m Not a Player” for Big Pun (and later “Biscuits” for Ghostface). It was a strange choice based on Mos’ past list of backpacker approved collaborators: Hi-Tek, Diamond D, Shawn J. Period, DJ Honda, etc. But Minnesota’s range on The New Danger needs to be commended. He goes from keyboard beats (“Close Edge”) to lurching funk (“Ghetto Rock”) to gorgeous soul (“The Panties”). I cut this album down to 12 songs from 17, giving Minnesota half of the production to shape the album.
The retail version tells the story of a man rebelling against his past, namely the Rawkus persona of “conscious rapper.” In the early 2000’s, contemporaries like Common, Cee-Lo, Q-Tip, and Andre 3000 were bored with rap and decided to noodle with experimental records to mixed results. Mos spent half of The New Danger following suite and the other half being, well, dangerous. There is no ?uestlove, Dilla, Prince, James Poyser, or Erykah Badu to guide him expertly onto white rock critics year end lists. He makes a lot of mistakes. He kicks street shit then coos a woman out of her underwear. He licks shots at Lyor Cohen and quotes Trick Daddy (“Ghetto Rock”). He gets arguably the worst Kanye West beat of 2004 (“Sunshine”) and makes something interesting out of it. It makes sense after The New Danger that Mos would become obsessed with MF Doom, who dropped Madvillainy later that year, while Talib Kweli would end up working with will.i.am and the Neptunes.
Mos Def’s growth on The New Danger was messy but organic; it had long term effects on his catalogue. It took him two more tries to make something on par with Black on Both Sides in 2009 with The Ecstatic. That album wouldn’t have made sense if Mos didn’t take risks and abandoned his beloved b-boy intellectual persona with this album. He has never admitted defeat for this bizarre album. Rearranging this album makes it a more concise listen however it belies the radical intention of its creator. Still, I felt it was better to make people reevaluate the album rather than diss it as one of the failed.
1. “The Boogie Man Song” prod. by Mos Def & Raphael Saddiq
This song introduces Mos’ Boogie Man persona, inspired by comedian Paul Mooney. “It’s about the idea of confronting fear . .. it’s a warm mischievous character. You don’t know what he’s going to do.” On this album and his subsequent LPs, Mos does radio drops for Freaky Radio (or simply stating “BOOGIE MAN MUSIC!”). “The Boogie Man Song” is seductive–it’s like the moment when the Candyman is looking at you through the mirror. “Let me be your favorite nightmare, close your eyes and I’ll be right there.”
2. “Life is Real” prod. by Minnesota
“Life is Real” sounds like an early album cut yet on the retail version it’s track #15. . This is the kind of song conceptually that Common has been churning out for years. Whereas Common’s everyman ghetto shtick comes off corny and tame, Mos just lays out the facts: “I got seeds I got to feed with this, they be needing shit, I got ex-wife beef and shit, that’s how deep it, my whole life is real, my whole life is ill.”
3. “Sex, Love, and Money” prod. by Warryn Campbell
Warryn Campbell is an outlier on this album–he’s a known R&B producer who slid Mos his first single for The New Danger. There was actually an “MTV Making of the Video” episode dedicated to this song. What I notice now about the video is how differently Mos is dressed compared to his PNB/Triple 5 Soul/tan cargo pants days at Rawkus: he’s more street, more masculine, more confident and simple with his outfits. He’s hanging in a scuzzy strip club yet looks classy. “Sex Love and Money” sounds like nothing from his past nor anything like rap in 2004. It still bangs ten years later.
4. “Close Edge” prod. by Minnesota
“Close Edge” is very 2004–The Neptunes should be asking for a check from Minnesota. “Close Edge” keeps the loose, fun atmosphere going from “Sex, Love and Money”. Both songs remind me of the polished radio songs Mos bodied on the Brown Sugar Soundtrack (go dig that up if you can–Mos gets his hands on 4 post-Blueprint Kanye beats in 2002). He’s one of the few guys from the Rawkus days who effortlessly fit on glossy beats and left-field beats.
5. “Ghetto Rock” prod. by Minnesota
“Ghetto Rock” is what Mos originally tried to accomplish with Black Jack Johnson: stripped down lyrics, catchy hooks, and a grit and grime approach to hip-hop and rock. This is also the song where he gives a nod to Trick Daddy (“Ah-ha, Ok, what’s up? SHUT UP!”). And with that, a million Rawkus DJ bags burst into flames in 2004.
6. “The Panties” prod. by Minnesota
“The Panties” is up there with “Umi Says,” “Lifetime,” and “Brown Skin Lady” in terms of all-time great Mos vocals, a skill he rarely gets recognized for. The arrangement of this joint is ill too–the sultry, buttery guitar build up to a climax when the drums kick in. This was is a lowkey great make out jam.
7. “Modern Marvel” prod. by Minnesota
“Modern Marvel” is a symptom of a greater illness on The New Danger: it’s 9 minutes long, it’s meandering and it tests your patience for half of its length. There’s three movements to this song, but if you start at 5:21 you get a thoughtfut shimmering rap ode to Marvin Gaye that bookends the warmth of “The Panties.”
8. “Beef” prod. by Minnesota
“Beef” is an outside song I’m including–it was released the year before randomly on a 12 inch.There’s many remixes, but the original still holds up, albeit with a familiar sample heard on Ghostface’s “Shakey Dog.” On the surface, “Beef” is a step away from the conscious rapper tag with its G-Unit/Dipset friendly beat by Minnesota. But like Chris Rock said, conscious rappers can have a message as long as the beats bang–conscious beats are what kill you. “Beef” is about the dangerous natural of actual beef, not gossip and diss songs about rappers. “Beef is not what these famous n****a do on the mic, beef is what George Bush would do in a fight, beef is what Ja said to 50, but beef is all my homies not being here with me.” This song is too great to not be on an album.
9. “Zimzallabim” prod. by Easy Moe Bee & Mos Def
Another Black Jack Johnson song recorded years back, “Zimzallabim” vocally finds a more hype and verbose Mos (for my ears, this was most likely recorded right after Soundbombing II). He screams “Ghetto rock with me!” over the most live band heavy cut from the album. His energy is wild. His bars are braggadocious and confrontational. I’ve tried to find the definition of the word ‘Zimzallabim’ and the closest I could find was the word ‘war.’ “Zimzallabim” sounds like how the cover of The New Danger looks.
10. “Sunshine” prod. by Kanye West
“Sunshine” is a bit of a cool down after “Beef” and “Zimzallabim.” Kanye’s flip of Melba Moore’s “The Flesh Failures (Let the Sunshine In)” is low-key and brooding compared to the roll he was on for the College Dropout earlier that year. He left a lot of meat on the bone. On his end, Mos is bucking shots: “Made it go without a brand new car, I was fresh without a brand new song, don’t give a fuck about what brand you are, I’m concerned what type of man you are.”
11. “Kalifornia” prod. by Adam “12” Bravin
This is another outside song I added–“Kalifornia” was placed on the Biker Boyz soundtrack in 2003. Again, this is a great Mos song that deserved better than be attached to a Fast & The Furious knock off (where Kid Rock got a speaking part). “Kalifornia” is another great melodic joint with Mos crooning. He flips the hook from “California Love,” which I find fascinating: Mos has borrowed rhymes and hooks throughout his entire career, starting with “Planet Rock” on his debut single “Universal Magnetic.” Yet he made “Children’s Story” on Black Star lambasting Puffy for doing the same thing. So he dissed Puffy…for biting…while remaking…a Slick Rick song…in its entirety. The late ‘90s rap ethos made no sense.
12. “Champion Requiem” prod. by 88 Keys
According to 88 Keys, Mos laid down his verse in one take, which is good because ending an album with one 40 bar verse should happen more often.