On Repeat: Mos Def
It may turn out that Mos Def is only capable of releasing one really great album every ten years– and I’d almost be okay with that. As it stands, he’s already released two of ’em, and that’s two more great albums than most artists release in their entire career. In 1999, just a year after his appearance as one-half of the compassionate, back-to-basics rap duo Black Star (which I guess could technically bump our count up to three great albums), Mos released Black on Both Sides, a pinnacle of late-90s hip-hop by anyone’s standard. Then he spent a solid decade puttering around in various movies, occasionally returning to recording only to release increasingly mediocre , self-indulgent material that suggested movie stardom had become more important to him than his music. And then, in 2009– almost ten years exactly since Black on Both Sides— he hit with The Ecstatic, an album that’s almost entirely different from Both Sides yet no less mercurial or brilliant. In fact, I’m not sure that you could find a better two albums to represent the best in socially aware, artistically volatile hip-hop.
That Mos Def struck brilliance with two wildly different albums is, I’d propose, a testament to his own creative restlessness and determined eclecticism. Even on his lesser albums, he always seems like an artist who insists on making music on his own terms and never repeating himself, which explains how his two pinnacles can stand as two unique sides to a singular talent. Black on Both Sides, of course, remains an epic, a marathon-length hip-hop album that, remarkably, never loses its steam or relents in its pursuit of excellence and diversity. It’s also an album that’s rich in thoughtful and compassionate lyrics about race, class, love, and hip-hop– not even Public Enemy wrote such eloquent and sharp arguments, and they were certainly never as warm– so it makes sense that the album is very much structured as a big, ambitious statement: It’s a manifesto, full and complete and sweeping in its scope.
The Ecstatic, meanwhile, is not a manifesto. In fact, I’m still not entirely sure what it is, even though I’ve played it nearly every day for the past few weeks. It’s a flight of fancy, but it’s meant to be taken seriously. It’s a weird, rambling album that abandons typical verse-chorus structures in favor of a seamless, suite-like flow, but it’s never self-indulgent. It’s filled with loose ends and rabbit trails– Mos sings in Spanish, writes a weird love song that could be to either a girl or a fun, incorporates Bollywood chorus lines, and half-mumbles through a couple of tracks like he’s making it up as he goes along– yet it’s also very complete, its ragged charm and rough edges enhancing the fact that it’s meant to be taken as a piece.
But above all else, it’s an anomaly in hip-hop, and indeed pop music in general, in that it’s an album that’s born from a place of real, genuine curiosity: Mos raps about signs and wonders, miracles and answered prayers, and the joy of living life in marvelous times, even as the winds of time and war and poverty rattle through some of the album’s corridors. Even when he’s singing about unemployment or war in Iraq, the artist never drops his stance of wide-eyed wonderment and childlike optimism.
That makes it personal. It makes it inspiring. And it even reminds me a bit of my favorite record of all time, Joe Henry’s Tiny Voices. What I mean by that is: It seems to recreate itself every time I play it, as though I’m listening not just to music being played, but to an actual act of spontaneous creativity. I’m thankful for that– a minor miracle, indeed.