Is “The Ecstatic” the first essential album of the Obama Age?
Depending on whether you’re willing to count TV on the Radio’s Dear Science (a record that strikingly captured the spirit of the age, though it was technically released before Obama was elected), I think the answer could very well be yes. If it seems like I’ve been writing about this album a lot, it’s because I’ve been listening to it a lot, and while that obviously has quite a bit to do with the music– the charmingly ragged, off-the-cuff nature of it, how it feels so natural and organic, the way its twilit haziness is warm and inviting rather than cold or alienating– it also has a lot to do with the words: What Mos Def has made here is a hip-hop album of uncommon depth and substance, one that caresses timely issues not through the lens of politics, but through spirituality and compassion.
I’ve come across a couple of bloggers who have struck close to the heart of what the record is all about. The Grain summarizes what makes it so special, and what makes it an essential encapsulation of 2009’s zeitgeist:
The Ecstatic feels like a return to the fold for Mos Def, coming off like Obama’s America and its re-engagement with the rest of the globe following recent ostracism. Mos has emerged from his own obstinate insularism to embrace the world. Its in the production of the record as much as anywhere else, with a heavy (middle) eastern imprint throughout.
The lyrics plot a complimentary path to this new awareness, the tone set with the Malcolm X sample that opens the record ( “I, for one, will join with anyone, don‘t care what colour you are, as long as you want to change this miserable condition that exists on this earth”). Overt political statements and specifics are largely avoided though, with the exception of Slick Rick’s 12 bar adaptation of his classic rhyme pattern into an Iraq story on ‘Auditorium’ (‘lookin’ at me curious a young Iraqi kid/carrying laundry, what’s wrong G hungry?/ No, give me my oil or get fuck out my country’). This is to the benefit of the record (particularly following Mos Def’s apparent penchant for supporting conspiracy theories), instead favouring more suggestive lyrics, highlighting the tension between the pessimism and optimism of the moment. Mos offers no easy answers, emphasising only survival.
For every line highlighting contemporary fears (‘you feel it in the street people breathe without hope/they’re goin through’ the motion’) there is a sanguine statement to embrace the moment (‘peace before everything, God before anything/love before anything, real before everything’; ‘hatred, love and war, and more and more and more and more/and more of less than ever before, it’s just too much more for your mind to absorb/It’s scary like hell, but there’s no doubt, we can’t be alive in no time but now’ ). Mos certainly sounds reinvigorated, even when his distinctive timbre slips into his half sung/half spoken intonation that began to cloud releases post Black on Both Sides.
The Ecstatic delivers what I have been crying out for, a hip hop album that seems relevant to the times without the forced political shtick or the gimmickry of others who have attempted to encapsulate this moment. It is cautiously optimistic, newly aware of the world outside, and slightly claustrophobic, reflecting contemporary complexities. It’s a welcome relief to have an album that touches on the social and political without leaving you feeling like you have been sledgehammered in the face with simplified, and often disgustingly naïve, pseudo political commentary. This is a hip hop record that is very much of this juncture in history, of re-engagement, observation and globalisation, and for once it works.
Just as he did in 1999, Mos Def has created a perfect record to sum up a decade and prepare us for moving into the next one. On “Life in Marvelous Times,” which in many ways functions as the center piece for the record, Mos Def sums up an entire decade with just a couple lines: “And we are alive in amazing times/delicate hearts, diabolical minds/revelations, hatred, love, and war…It’s just too much for your mind to absorb.” These words appear over a killer beat and a synth line that could be in any number of horror films and it all falls together to create a perfect song. And Mos Def is spot on with his description of the days we live in. When the history books record this decade they’ll likely focus on the awful, horrific events, but Mos Def reminds us that the good is always mixed in with the bad. Love and war will always exist side by side in this world. And adding another dose of wisdom, he concludes the song with “It’s scary like hell, there’s no doubt/But we can’t be alive in no time but now.”
And here we catch a glimpse of The Ecstatic’s purpose. It’s not to warn us like he did on Black on Both Sides, its to encourage us, to lift us up. Mos Def turns our attention to mysteries, “signs and wonders,” and revelations here.
I love both of these reviews. And I love this record. It’s one of the few records I’ve heard that can almost be called necessay.