Mos Def is a tough cat to figure out. His first solo album was straight (and good) hip-hop, his second made him sound like he wanted to be a rocker, and his third – released with no cover art and no promotion – almost made it seem like he was embarrassed by it.
Add in his flourishing acting career and his sometimes tumultuous personal life and it’s understandable if fans wondered if they would ever hear something from him as satisfying as Black on Both Sides, his well-received 1999 solo debut. The good news is that ten years later, The Ecstatic sees Mos returning to top form, back in touch with his inner MC while still pushing some boundaries at the same time.
The rock-tinged lead track “Supermagic” may give some a few Black Jack Johnson flashbacks, but the sinister loop provided by Chad Hugo (of The Neptunes) for “Twilite Speedball” puts things back on a more traditional path. A group of producers that includes Madlib, Preservation and Mr. Flash serve up beats that show off a wide range of influences, from soul to Middle Eastern to African to Latin, but Mos Def is versatile enough that nothing feels too contrived.
He also can still bring it on the mic. On lead single “Life in Marvelous Times,” he takes listeners back to “the pre-crack era,” and the picture he paints is a vivid one: “Ends don’t meet where the arms can’t reach/Mean streets, even when it’s free it ain’t cheap./Ongoing saga, terminal diagnosis/Basic survival requires superheroics./No space in the budget for a cape/That’s when you got to fly by night to save the day.”
More gems are dropped on the standout track “Auditorium,” with Mos explaining exactly where his head is at circa 2009: “I speak it so clearly, sometimes ya’ll don’t hear me/I push it past the bass note, nations got to feel me./I feel it in my bones, black, I’m so wide awake/That I’m hardly ever sleep, my flow forever deep./And it’s volumes of scriptures when I breathe on the beat/My presence speaks volumes before I say a word/I’m everywhere, penthouse, pavement or curb.”
Slick Rick adds his own storytelling touch to “Auditorium” becoming the “Elvis of Baghdad,” but the list of guest stars on The Ecstatic is otherwise pretty short. The other half of Black Star, Talib Kweli, does stop by to lend a hand on “History,” but it’s a short reunion at just 2:21. Other material is likely to be too high concept or experimental for some. That includes songs like “The Embassy” and “No Hay Nada Mas,” which since it is completely in Spanish, went right by this reviewer.
Still, it’s easy to forgive a few eccentricities when they are part of a package like this. By and large, the rapper that we always knew was floating around in Mos Def’s head is back, and like the title of the album states, it feels pretty good indeed. – Nick Tylwalk
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