Mos Def – The New Danger

Music Reviews Mos Def
Mos Def – The New Danger

Now, more than ever, hip-hop seems to be on a divergent path: Half its practitioners are thugging and mugging, while others—led by The Roots and OutKast—opt for the high road by adding actual instrumentation to the mix. Mos Def, who initially made his mark as an actor, has always moved in the latter direction, shunning the low-life approach for an intellectual and socially conscious spew worthy of W.E.B. DuBois.

Although he dropped his rhymes on other rappers’ records (most notably De La Soul’s “Big Brother Beat”), Def’s talent didn’t fully emerge until he teamed with Talib Kweli for 1998’s Black Star, a combination of social commentary and old-school beats. Def’s ’99 solo album, Black on Both Sides, proved he possessed both the acumen and vision needed for a high-stakes spitting contest and the diversity—specifically, forays into reggae and rock—to place him ahead of the pack.

The Brooklyn native then refocused his attention on acting, starring in blockbusters like Monster’s Ball and Brown Sugar, before making his Broadway debut in the Pulitzer Prize-winning play Top Dog/Underdog. For five long years, Def forsook the microphone for the spotlight, with the exception of a few gigs with his rock outfit, Black Jack Johnson.

So, can Mos Def, the award-winning actor, reconcile his success with Mos Def, the bitter rapper? The answer, I’m afraid, is “seldom.”

The New Danger gets off to a rocky start, as Def channels “King of Pain”-era Sting. Sensitive and brooding, sure, but “Boogie Man Song” sounds like something those white folks in Six Degrees of Separation might play on their stereo. At least “Ghetto Rock,” a collaboration with Black Jack Johnson, has cajones—stinging electric-blues licks overlaid with playground verses—but its repetitive riff drives the point home long before the song is over.

Thankfully, “Zimzallabim” harkens back to the early days, as Def delivers a predictable—yet effective—diatribe on slavery, a sociopolitical approach he parlays into “War.” Shouts go out to his ‘hood on the bluesy, groove-laden “Bed Stuy Parade and Funeral March,” a stirring tribute Def nearly ruins with his prima donna request to “turn my voice up.”

Occasionally, Def manages to sound menacing (check “Sex, Love, and Money,” which booms like a New Orleans brass band), jubilant (“Sunshine,” produced by Kanye West, and the lyrically flawed “Life Is Real”), and humble (“Champion Requiem,” the obligatory “props to the Creator” number).

Unfortunately, irrational moments like “The Rape Over” make you question the entire 17-track outing. On this note-for-note parody of Jay-Z’s “Takeover,” Def rhapsodizes about the current state of the music industry. “All white men is running this rap shit,” he says as an opener, building on the theme by dissing “quasi-homosexuals” as the enemy of blacks for, yep, “running this rap shit.”

“MTV is running this rap shit / Viacom is running this rap shit / AOL and Time Warner is running this rap shit / We poke out our asses for a chance to cash in,” he rhymes on the catchy chorus, while his misguided hatred hemorrhages like a stab wound.

Earth to Mos Def: Who’s giving you those Hollywood jobs? What about those “quasi-homosexuals” on the Broadway scene? They’d probably shrug off your slight with a laugh—after all, “that’s entertainment,” right? But you’d better watch it—you only get one chance to bite the hand that feeds you.

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