Album Review: Mos Def - The Ecstatic

by Mark Wheat

Let's do the new dance invented by Mos Def; Step Up - Crossover - Step Back - Crossover - Mis-Step Back - Crossover - Step Back Up!! No other artist has ever pulled off this dangerous groove, but Mos Def does it with his newest release "The Ecstatic"

Few musical performers who've crossed over to acting have ever gone back to music with any level of success, and none have achieved the level of artistic achievement in each realm as Mos Def has with this album.

After reaching legendary status with his 1998 "Black Star" album collaboration with Talib Kweli, he has regularly made appearances in award-winning movies and on Broadway. But he failed to regain critical respect for the rap-rock genre with his all star band, Black Jack Johnson. His third solo "True Magic" in 2006 left many thinking he didn't care about making any more albums. But those were different times in the both the music business and politically. Mos Def always likes to deal with contemporary political issues in his music, so this year seems perfectly suited for him to return with a CD that starts with a sample saying: "We're living in a time of extremism, a time of revolution."

Perhaps inspired by his recent delightful appearance as Chuck Berry in "Cadillac Records," Mos Def's new approach seems loose, as in the way the best kind of jam session can be. This is especially amazing because the beats are produced by several different producers. The first eight tracks flow together beautifully, as if pieced together by a live band, with lyrical and musical themes linking the tracks. The crescendo of this arc, the blistering "life in marvelous times" almost falls apart at one point, where the music edit seems blurry and his vocals falter as if caught in a free-styling hiccup. Then track eight "The Embassy," starts with dialogue, the longest connecting skit on the record that could be from a movie or Saturday Night Live episode. Airline pilots, in their confidence-giving cadence, describe what guns they have as they explain what can be seen out of their windows. It's almost like saying: "Don't worry. NOW we have the situation under control and THAT will not ever happen again!"

One of the recurring themes--Iraq--seems to set the stage for other themes such as Brooklyn, Boogieman, smoke, eastern music and religion to act as characters trying desperately to make sense of how to react to the war and the challenge thrown down by the sample at the beginning of the album.

"People in power have abused it and now there has to be a change/A better world has to be built and the only way it will change is with extreme methods".

The political content is not dense nor claustrophobic or preachy. There's no real answers suggested, but the right questions are being asked.

Some tracks later in the album are less successful, making it a bit too long for a single piece. This is disappointing, as the album relies on the thematic cohesion to establish itself as a major work. In today's single-jammed hip-hop field, this will hamper him from big "proper" crossover success on the Billboard charts.

But the final song, "Casa Bey"--which magnetically unites many of the lyrical themes --is an apt way to redefine where Mos Def sits in the modern rap lexicon. He's a crossover hero, a shining black star who could teach us all a new dance.

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