Review: Mos Def, “The Ecstatic”

The Ecstatic

(Note: This review was originally posted on Vibe.com before the company was liquidated and sold to new owners. It is no longer available on the website, so I decided to re-post it here.)

Mos Def, The Ecstatic
Downtown Records

What’s it like to be ahead of your time? Ask Mos Def. Since bursting out of Brooklyn in 1996 through standout cameos on De La Soul’s “Stakes is High” remix and Bush Babees “The Love Song,” mighty Mos has redefined hip hop artistry. His blend of deft rhymes, melodic harmonizing and spoken-word poetry into spirit-lifting, conscious-raising music is indelibly unique. He may be one of the few rappers that actually deserve the “conscious” sobriquet.

The problem is that Mos Def’s considerable ambitions often obscure his talents. 1999’s Black on Both Sides diverged wonderfully between the DJ Premier-assisted throwback charm of “Ms. Fat Booty” and the hard-charging hardcore punk quotations on “Rock & Roll.” But subsequent albums like 2003’s The New Danger and 2007’s True Magic found him struggling to synthesize his varying interests into cohesive statements. Time softens disappointments, however. Heard today, The New Danger sounds less a schizophrenic mess of cryptic freestyles and black rock than a courageous, even visionary preview of the future soul movement now led by Sa-Ra Creative Partners, Georgia Anne Muldrow and others.

On his fourth album The Ecstatic, Mos Def declares himself as the MC who flows “greatest like the Greater Lakes,” and revels in the power of his words. “I speak it so clearly sometimes y’all don’t hear me,” he raps in a determined voice on “Auditorium,” just before Slick Rick, inspired by producer Madlib’s medley of “Middle Eastern instruments,” appears spins a surreal tale of traveling through war-torn Iraq. Mos and Rick’s Q-Tip-and-Phife-like collabo gives way to “Priority,” where Mos calls himself “The gingerbread the slave master can’t catch.” (Get that?) Childhood fables aside, one of his most endearing traits is his empathy with impoverished people around the world. He observes Arabian women deep in prayer while traveling overseas on “The Embassy,” and raps a tribute en español to the Third World on “No Hay Nada Mas.”

Yes, it’s a typically eccentric tour de force from Mos Def. But this time, he recruits producers capable of keeping pace with him. Brothers Madlib and Oh No, French producer Mr. Flash of Ed Banger Records infamy and even the late master James “J Dilla” Yancey contribute grainy sample-filled beats, bringing Mos’ ideas into focus. Oh No loops an electric guitar solo for “Supermagic” (recycled from his 2007 album Dr. No’s Oxperiment); “Priority” finds newcomer Preservation weaving a dramatic medley of strings and bass drums. Mos Def soaks it all up, reverting to the hungry rhyme-spitter of years past instead of the wealthy rapper-actor hyphenate he’s now become.

As Mos Def unfurls each song, he offers little in the way of memorable hooks or choruses. But it doesn’t seem to matter. From comparing himself to Sugar Ray and Muhammad Ali on “Pretty Dancer,” to dropping adlibs over Muldrow’s vocals on “Roses” like a dancehall chatterer, Mos Def weaves and bobs like a champion boxer working the ring, creating eclectic sounds that deserve and rewards repeated listens. He truly earns the title of The Ecstatic.

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