October 21, 2004

The Mighty Mos Def?

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Before you listen to The New Danger, pop in Mos Def’s 1999 release Black On Both Sides first. Yeah, it’s probably the greatest hip-hop album of all time. With melodic poetry in “Mathematics,” emotional intensity on “Umi Says,” and beats like the one on “Ms. Fat Booty” produced and played by Mos himself, it’s a true legend both musically and lyrically. What happened?

Apparently solo brilliance wasn’t enough — it was what everyone expected so releasing another album of just beats and Mos’s voice would be conforming. The New Danger is the result of Mos’s most recent project, a rock/hip-hop hybrid band called Black Jack Johnson. (Jack Johnson was the first black man to win the heavyweight boxing championship.) The idea is that Mos Def is coming back to re-claim musical property stolen by the likes of Elvis Presley and other white rockers from black rhythm and blues artists like Bo Diddley and Little Richard. Expressing this sentiment on the previous album’s track “Rock N Roll,” Mos Def purports, among other insults, that “You may dig all the Rolling Stones/ But they ain’t come up with that shit on they own.” Whether this controversial statement is true or not, this passion translated into a dire need for a new black rock movement.

Fair enough. But The New Danger hardly offers an adequate representation of what Jimi, Albert King, and John Lee Hooker came up with decades ago. “Freaky Black” begins with a driving, lead rock guitar that could easily be mistaken for Black Sabbath. Over this jarring riff, Mos repeats “Yeah, it’s nice, all right, come with it, ha ha” endlessly. We keep waiting for this introduction to end and for Mos to start rhyming but it never comes. Next, “Ghetto Rock” uses a tinny couple of notes and an unnecessarily ominous affect while Mos raps about how he’s a “bad motherfucker.” This is a far cry from the same artist who told us just a few years ago that he had an undying flame for compassion, love, and life. There’s more punk rock on “Zimzallabim” and, finally, a few verses of the incisive rhyming Mos is best known for.

One of the album’s characteristics worth mentioning is that nearly every track is in a minor key — Mos is a lot more angrier at the world now, including even “quasi-homosexuals” for some reason. The music’s derisive tone makes our blood boil, makes us angry; in other words, makes us think of Mos more as a gangster rapper than a conscientious social critic.

Last year Mos Def did a couple shows at the legendary New York jazz club Blue Note, performing not as a rapper but as a jazz standard vocalist. This experiment was critically lauded for its innovation but demonstrates few of the nuances jazz includes. A surprisingly high number of songs on The New Danger feature Mos Def the jazzer, such as “Black Jack,” “Bedstuy Parade,” “The Panties,” and “Modern Marvel.” These moments, instead of offering a melodic respite from the rest of the album, become redundant interludes.

Thus far the album, much-anticipated for at least a year after Mos’s old record label Rawkus went out of business, is a disappointment. But there are a few gem, mostly when Mos drops the grandiose idea of a rock band and reverts to classic beats and those seemingly never-ending verses of personal insight. Tracks eight through ten, beginning with “Sex, Love and Money” are like a time capsule which remind us what he’s really capable of. “Sunshine” has that optimistic tone about being genuine and ambitious, and he also instructs us to love our family. The chorus of “Close Edge” is the best string of nouns in hip-hop other than a strangely similar one in the preceding track, and is followed by Mos’s unique talent for changing up the rhythm with syncopation, alliteration and repetition. This sounds like poetry analysis because it is.

After hearing it in its entirety a listener could easily be ambivalent about evaluating an album with such incredible diversity: The New Danger is sometimes awful, sometimes brilliant. Mos Def is still the same complex critic he was a few years ago — his motives are only distorted occasionally by this (hopefully) one-time project.

3 Stars

Archived article by Elliot Singer
Red Letter Daze Staff Writer