Mos Def: “The Ecstatic”
As the title of Mos Def’s fourth album, the word “ecstatic” doesn’t mean what you might think it means. As the enigmatic MC explained to USA Today, he’s not using the term in its present-day connotation, but rather as it was used in the 17th century, as a word to describe someone whose ideas are so ahead of their time, the only explanations can be divine inspiration or pure madness.
The rapper’s fans will be relieved to know that the title of The Ecstatic carries with it no irony, no artificially high expectations: Really and truly, Mos Def is creating music at a level that surely derives from some mixture of supernatural aid and twisted genius. He sounds hungry and engaged, arguably for the first time since his classic debut, Black on Both Sides, but what’s odd is that, while this is a triumphal return to form after a decade of noodling around with odd vanity projects and paying more attention to his film career than his music, it isn’t exactly a comeback, either. Comeback albums imply that the artist is making a deliberate attempt to consolidate his strengths and prove to fans that he can still bring the heat. On The Ecstatic, Mos Def doesn’t sound particularly interested in proving anything to anyone. Commercial considerations are entirely removed from the equation, and it’s so different from anything else he’s done that it’s hard to hear it a self-conscious attempt at career rehabilitation. Instead, this is music rich with something else altogether: A real sense of play, a wide-eyed wonder at the possibilities afforded by music and a complete surrender to the artist’s own, staggeringly deep imagination.
In other words, the MC sounds, well, ecstatic– swept along in a heady rush of inspiration. But if the album doesn’t quite qualify as a deliberate comeback album, it does hint at why Mos Def has seemed so apathetic about the hip-hop game as of late. By the sounds of things, he’s simply uninterested in hip-hop as usual, and The Ecstatic is his bid to reanimate the genre by pushing it to its very limits. This is a low-key, off-the-wall, and at times downright bizarre masterpiece that doesn’t just toss out the spare, muscular rap of Black Star and Black on Both Sides, but also traditional hip-hop structures altogether. It’s as much about texture as it is the beats– which is no slight on the beats, some of which are as imaginative as any in hip-hop– and it encompasses everything from Bollywood chorus lines and acid-jazz guitar fragments to ethnic percussion and swirls of psychedelia, all wrapped in a druggy haze that makes the album feel downright creepy, as though it possesses a spooky sense of dementia.
What’s marvelous, though, is that the record’s creepy atmospherics are neither cold nor alienating– this is remarkably warm, inviting music, enveloping the listener in its surreal haze. And that it seems totally out of time might go without saying, but it’s also the product of no particular country or culture: Producers Madlib and Oh No (along with on of the Neptunes and the late J Dilla, appearing on one track apiece) invigorate Mos Def’s music be taking it out of traditional hip-hop forms and placing him in the midst of music derived from India and the Middle East, and, on the final track, a funky samba. It’s not exactly a “world music” album, but it is borne of a particularly boundary-less sense of geography, an album implicitly suggesting a certain cultural unity and celebration of diversity.
All this serves to renew in Mos Def not only his sense of purpose, but his sense of wonder; on first single “Life in Marveous Times,” he sounds generally full of wonder and curiosity, as he does on the rest of the album. And so his rhymes are, unsurprisingly, some of the most inspired of his career. He nonchalantly mixes casual boasting with poetic philosophizing, shrugging as he declares his own immeasurable talent and then waxing eloquent about love and war, his lyrics lit by a political fire but coming from a perspective of peaceful compassion and fervent spirituality. At times it feels almost stream-of-conscious– again, the album is best described as a kind of inspired madness, not as anything deliberate or predetermined– but Mos Def’s casual, in-the-moment poetry proves addicting. Both musically and lyrically, the album is a trippy puzzle that takes several listens to absorb and begin piecing together.
And in a way, that’s almost a shame; this is hip-hop that takes patience and imagination to fully unpack, and as such, casual listeners might fail to miss what a triumph it really is. In that same USA Today interview, Mos Def notes– not particularly arrogantly, but matter-of-factly– that no one else in hip-hop has made music like this, nor could they. And he’s right: This is very personal and spontaneous music that could never be replicated. And that makes it something better than a comeback album– an album of real inspiration, a miniature masterpiece that’s not only a triumph for Mos Def, but for music itself.