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October 17, 2004

Taking break from acting career, icon of alt-rap returns with bold new album

Both Mos Def's new album, The New Danger, and his 1999 solo debut, Black on Both Sides, begin with the same words, spoken before any music hits the listener's ears. Though I am not aware of their source, I can only assume that this brief incantation is some kind of Muslim prayer, reflecting the spirituality that Mos Def wears proudly on his sleeve. These words, however, are one of the few direct links between the two albums, records separated not only by exactly five years, but also by changed values, modified musical convictions, and seemingly a lifetime of experience. Perhaps it was naïve to think that Mos Def would resume the same brilliance in which he dabbled on Black on Both Sides. The New Danger is simply a different album, one that should be appreciated for what its title suggests: this is a new Mos Def, more mature, more hardened, and, for better or worse, less idealistic.

When I reviewed Dizzee Rascal's Showtime for the Orientation Week issue of the Maroon, I suggested that his newest album, as well as those of Talib Kweli and Mos Def, would be "response" records, replying not only to previous critique and past works, but also to one another's separate statements. Though that may have been a hypothesis based more on how I choose to listen to records (and to whom I choose to listen) than actual relationships between certain hip-hop artists, I maintain that each album at least responded to, and grew from, previous efforts. Dizzee Rascal's record was more musically diverse and aggressive than his 2003 debut; Talib Kweli's The Beautiful Struggle saw him balance glitzier production with lyrics that still addressed social issues; The New Danger sees Mos Def taking on a slicker persona, his "Beautiful Boogie Man" image transforming his lyrics, his sound, and his overall agenda.

Black on Both Sides was released in 1999, just after Mos and Talib, as Black Star, presented their manifesto for rap based more in the people, less in bling-bling. In 1998, Black Star launched the careers of both rappers, and just over a year later Mos released his powerful opening remarks as a solo artist. Since then, however, Mos has kept our salivary glands working overtime, increasing our impatience with each passing year as he became increasingly successful and noticed as a Broadway and Hollywood actor. In the time since the release of Black on Both Sides, Talib Kweli has released three records, he alone carrying the torch that should have been gripped by both of them. While Mos was garnering Tony and Emmy nominations in addition to his film work, Fiona Apple and the Beastie Boys were appearing downright prolific in terms of recorded output.

It appears that Mos' success has made him both more confident and more defeated. While Black's opening mantra segued into "Fear Not of Man," a track that preached "mind over matter and soul before flesh," Danger's meditative words ease us into the forlorn "The Boogie Man Song," in which Mos proclaims himself the aforementioned "Most Beautiful Boogie Man," the "favorite nightmare" in a world that is "cold and ugly." This is clearly not the same Mos Def, now essentially offering himself as some small respite from a world that cannot support his ideals.

These lyrics are propped up by music recalling Incubus, Robert Johnson, and Jay-Z more than the Native Tongues crew. "Freaky Black Greetings" introduces Mos Def's band Black Jack Johnson to the album, a decidedly rock band that revels in roaring guitar riffs. Needless to say, when I first heard this nu-metal blaring from my speakers, I got a little nervous. Thankfully, the remainder of the record features a more nuanced side of Black Jack Johnson, and Mos Def often adopts more rootsy intonation, including the straight-up blues number "Blue Black Jack," and the smoky-bar funk of "Bedstuy Parade & Funeral March."

It is perhaps no surprise that Mos Def gravitates more toward rock-based grooves on Danger, further diversifying an already varied sonic palette. While rhyming over record scratches, drum and bass, brass sections, and other unique orchestrations on Black, Mos hit on numerous social issues founded on the principles of "mind over matter and soul before flesh." Over-iced brothers, water pollution, racism, and even economics all warranted Mos' attention, all based in a philosophy of hip-hop at its purest and most earnest. On "Rock ‘N' Roll," Mos even staked his claim to the African-American heritage of the devil's music, proclaiming "Elvis Presley ain't got no soul/ Little Richard is rock ‘n' roll." White America's (and Britain's) co-opting of a music based in slave hymns was just another injustice that Mos tore through with his incisive rhymes.

Now, it appears that rock 'n' roll is about the only cause in which Mos still has faith. Sure, just because you write an album extolling the virtues of social consciousness doesn't mean you have to write another one. But the fiery calls to arms on Black are, if anything, merely implicit on Danger, perhaps obscured under a layer of cynicism. Criticism in "The Rape Over" of all the people running the rap industry (including homosexuals) is more snarky than insightful, and the issues of "Sex, Love & Money" and "Grown Man Business," though approached with a grain of salt, never would have been addressed by the 25-year-old Mos of Black on Both Sides. The handful of love songs, as well as the usual odes to Brooklyn and New York City, sound like ground already tread thin on the debut record.

Although The New Danger is not the album that I (unrealistically) thought it would be, it is still a bold, daring statement. Like Black on Both Sides, the record is epic, its 18 tracks and 75-minute length trumping the debut on both counts. Mos is not as lyrically nimble as on Black, but his sound has developed into something steeped in rock, and sunk into the slick and stuttering beats of today's hot producers, such as Kanye West, who features prominently on the record. This is a different side of Mos Def, but one that is a natural development from his younger self, an earlier incarnation that could not have foreseen the last five years of this man's life.

The corn-rowed portrait of Mos that graced the cover of his debut has been replaced by the gritty image of The New Danger. On it, Mos stares back at us like some guerrilla ghetto warrior, blood-soaked hanky covering his mouth and his finger-as-gun pointing to his temple. On the inside, he is photographed in classic minstrel show garb. Is this symbolic suicide? A call for the vitality of the mind? His mind? Our minds? Whatever the case may be, he is saying something. Mos Def is back.