By Christian H. | Music | July 8, 2009 |
By Christian H. | Music | July 8, 2009 |
It is the eternal struggle of hip-hop music, the great lamentation of critics and fans alike, that the genre is so often heavily loaded with almost stereotypical hedonism, greed, homophobia, and sexism that it becomes a parody of itself. Worse yet, the music is locked in an incessant, almost fearful grip on the coattails of past and more successful rappers, which leads to mediocrity begetting further mediocrity. The better a rapper is at emulating their idols, the more money they make, the higher their profile becomes, the more ingrained their name is on the popular consciousness. This leads to rappers who branch into other mediums, like the screen or the printed page. These ventures almost never turn out well, and eventually these artists retreat into the comfort of their musical sphere. These cycles and their impact have continued for decades now, and to those not paying attention, it would seem as if nothing in hip-hop has really changed.
But the rampant mediocrity and the frustration that mediocrity has caused has, over time, allowed for the greater sifting of the bad from the truly good, those who’ve rejected the notion that hip-hop’s evolution has stalled and is relegated only to what can be heard on Top 40 radio stations and commercials for new ringtones, who’ve taken up the mantle of artists like Public Enemy and De La Soul and decided that enough is enough. These days, for every Ne-Yo, there is a P.O.S. For every Asher Roth, there is an Atmosphere. And for every 50 Cent, there is a Mos Def, the rapper-turned-actor who is actually great at both without being pretentious, big-headed, or crude. Now, after a three-year stretch away from the recording studio, Def has released his fourth album, and, like a large but unpolished diamond, it isn’t perfect, but it is truly something to behold.
The very opening of The Ecstatic comes off like a challenge, the dialogue sample and the music itself basically acting on Mos Def’s behalf, telling the listener, “If you’re not ready for something different, grit your teeth or get out.” The first three tracks of the album may be a slog to those who are unprepared or unaccustomed to Def’s independent style, featuring repeated verses and unusual musical choices, from Middle Eastern wails to xylophones. In particular, the second half of “Auditorium”, featuring a love-it-or-hate-it verse by Slick Rick, could weed out listeners who aren’t patient enough to wait and see where the rest of this album is going. But for those willing to stick through the trials, or better yet those who appreciated these tracks from the first listen, will find a great deal to enjoy in the album’s production and Mos Def’s interesting experiments with rhythms and lyrics.
Some of the brightest spots on the album are probably the most tender. Tracks like “Priority”, “Roses”, and “History” (featuring a wonderful guest spot by Talib Kweli) showcase the rapper’s flow and musical sensibilities but, more importantly, his heart. These songs remind us that hip-hop’s machismo can be trumped by a sensitive heart and a strong mind. But make no mistake, Mos Def is hardly hugs and kisses throughout an entire album. The MC does explorer the darker sides of American indifference and violence. The skit at the beginning of “The Embassy”, in which an airline captain describes with intricate and brutal detail the guns they carry in the cockpit as his voice is warped and distorted is creepy and unnerving but, unlike similar skits on albums by acts like Eminem, pointed, not simply for shock value but to make a point, however obvious it might be.
Of course, for all of Mos Def’s experimentation and extremely interesting ideas, the album does not entirely break every convention of the genre. There are still the skits and samples of dialogue that seem to be obligatory on modern hip-hop albums, a trend that the genre would do well to abandon once and for all. And throughout the album, the rapper has a tendency to self-hype by throwing out the words “ecstatic”, “magnetic”, and “boogeyman” in seemingly every song, not unlike a patient with Tourette syndrome. Moments like these can irritate even the most thoroughly exposed hip-hop fans through sheer repetition. This is not so much a criticism of this album as of the genre as a whole, but it is an unnecessary taint on such a solid disc.
But in the end, Mos Def has definitely succeeded in making a great hip-hop album. Even delving solely into the album’s singles, “Life in Marvelous Times”, “Quiet Dog Bite Hard”, and “Casa Bey”, you can hear Mos Def’s fresh, unique take on hip-hop music. Repeated listens may be required to fully appreciate the sixteen tracks contained within, but The Ecstatic is worth any effort it might take, if for no other reason than to see what hip-hop can be when it isn’t trapping itself into a corner. Mos Def may not have transformed all the major conventions of the genre, but he’s taken on the most important one: That to be successful is to be doomed to repeat what has been done before, regardless of whether or not it’s the right thing to do. All it takes to break the cycle is to want it badly enough.
Christian Hagen is a music journalist from Minneapolis (who is also in a band), who likes to waste his time writing about nothing, and who has yet to launch his own website (though one is on its way), so for now he can only link to his MySpace profile.