The Mighty Mos, Black Dante, Boogie Man, Pretty Flaco, Freaky Night Watchman - whatever name you pick, people who know hip-hop will know exactly who you mean. And rightfully so; after semi-debuting with a classic album and forming one of the genre’s most celebrated trios (teaming up with Kweli & Hi-Tek), then following with a solo project that reached near-classic status (Black On Both Sides), this BK emcee surely deserves that recognition. However, after splitting with Rawkus Records and inking with Geffen, Mos Def turned in a new direction, experimenting with new genres and, in many cases, mashing them together. This approach was taken on his next two albums, The New Danger (2004) and True Magic (2006), and was received with mixed feelings. Many have been longing for another Blackstar album (the first CD I ever burned), or at least something that resembles BOBS. Is this the record that brings us back?
Madlib provides a good portion of the production on this record, and he doesn’t disappoint. The best track on the album may be “Auditorium,” which features a sample that instantly reminded me of Wu-Tang’s 36 Chambers. The beat features strings, muffled keys, and perfectly placed percussion, and Mos Def’s flow weaves them all together seamlessly. Slick Rick closes out the track with his signature drawl and some Iraq-themed storytelling, and his performance is one of the best-fitting guest spots I’ve heard on a record this year.
Another nice track that rivals the album’s best is the J Dilla-produced “History,” which features Talib Kweli and a soul sample cut in the way that instantly reminds you of the late great producer. Mos and Kweli each contribute a verse, and their flows throw you back to the days of "Definition" and "Respiration."
A third track that deserves its own mention is “Life In Marvelous Times,” produced by Mr. Flash. This caught my ear instantly; to be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever heard Mos on a beat quite like this one before. An electronic-themed melody is anchored by strings, occasional horns, and simple, echoed, banging percussion. The dramatic sound that results is something that Mos should experiment with more. In fact, if it weren’t for some ill-timed electronic-string stabs in certain portions (listen to it, and you‘ll know exactly what I mean; they kick you in the head the first time you hear them), this could rival the two tracks above as the album’s best.
Other notables include “No Hay Nada Mas,” which features a smooth guitar sample and Mos rapping entirely in Spanish; “Supermagic,” which incorporates a distorted, Arabian-type guitar riff; “Priority,“ which employs a simple piano sample that Mos murders with one verse; and “Twilite Speedball,” a Chad Hugo-produced track that shows clear Neptunes influences.
There’s one aspect of this album that, unfortuantely, I have to mention; out of 16 tracks, only 5 of them are at least 3 minutes long. There are even three tracks under 2 minutes, and two tracks are 2:02 and 2:03, respectively. This certainly doesn’t seem like Mos Def’s most concentrated effort; it’s not like the short tracks just feature verse after verse with no chorus. As corny as this sounds, you never want to listen to an album and feel like an artist is shorting you, and not giving you their best in the booth. Sadly, this album makes you wonder at times, especially when good tracks are 1 minute, 23 seconds long (“Priority”).
THE GOOD WORD
If you’re looking for the album that reminds you of the Mos Def of the late-90s, you won’t find it here. If you can get past the fact that Hi-Tek isn‘t behind this one though, this album will grow on you after listening through it a couple of times. Mos is still one of the best lyricists around and his flow is still unique; to be sure, he hasn’t lost any of that. What people may want to see, however, is a step in an old, familiar direction; to the days when his production was a bit more polished and traditional.
RATING: 3.5 out of 5