Album Review: Mos Def – The Ecstatic

“Congratulations… you’re alive!”

This bit of Mos Def stage banter was my favorite moment of a show I saw a couple years ago. In retrospect, it is quite possible that he actually called us “live”, but I choose to believe I got the quote right. The idea of celebrating the act of being alive seems so in line with the vibe of a classic hip-hop show, and Mos Def embodies the joy of the genre as well as anyone.

For a while there it appeared Mos was done with hip-hop forever. His last album, Tru3 Magic, was a complete flop.  It wasn’t just that the music was bad (though it certainly was). Everything about the album gave the impression of an artist who could not care less about his music career, from the lazy beats and rhymes to the complete lack of any form of album art.

But The Ecstatic is artistic, in a time when the genre needs it more than ever. I generally try and distance myself from the fatalism of the “hip-hop is dead” camp, opting for a much sunnier “hip-hop is different” stance. But the first half of 2009 has been undeniably brutal. Lil Wayne has been fiddling with a guitar, Kanye has been fiddling with his blog, T.I. is in jail and the underground is far too busy flooding the Internet with mixtapes to put together a proper LP. It is into this scene that Mos decided to reemerge as strong as ever.

Mos Def may be modern rap’s most loyal disciple of classic hip-hop. Here, four albums into his solo career, he is still channeling the street corners through the hand claps and “up-jump-the-boogie” chants of “Quiet Dog” and other tracks. Songs like album opener “Supermagic” prove that an artist can be socially conscious without blatantly political — or even sensical — lyrics. Simply conjuring up memories of a generation of Black and Hispanic youth spitting “Peace and Love and Unity and Having Fun!” in the face of one of America’s ugliest ghettos is a more powerful political statement than anything on that Street Sweeper Social Club record.

Nowhere is Mos Def’s reverence for the past clearer than on “History”, his reunion with fellow Black Star emcee Talib Kweli. Mos the album’s one Dilla beat for the occasion. Kweli’s verse is as good as anything we have heard from him in years and both rappers sound strong enough to have any fan praying that this Black Star 2 thing really happens.

But while Mos may be a poster child for hip-hop fans who spend too much time in the past, his true strength is in always finding a way to call attention to genre trends that should be glaringly obvious, yet somehow remain buried under all the “real hip hop” backslapping. On his solo debut Mos explored the Black roots of rock ‘n’ roll and its link to hip-hop on the aptly titled “Rock n Roll”, before expanding the formula into an entire album on The New Danger. Hip-hop has responded loud and clear, often to embarrassing results, as groups like Gym Class Heroes and N.E.R.D. have shot up the charts. The movement will reach its logical conclusion later this year with Lil Wayne’s long-awaited rock album. Now it is time for Mos Def to shine the spotlight on where rap will be headed in the next decade.

And where rap is headed is around the world. This is not a new phenomenon, but the advent of the Internet has brought international artists like K’Naan and M.I.A. into the public consciousness. Still, though they are respected, few in the hip-hop community seem to recognize them as hip-hop artists. K’Naan stuck out like a very enjoyable sore thumb on this summer’s Rock the Bells tour and the idea of M.I.A. sharing a stage with the likes of Talib Kweli and Pharoahe Monch still seems a bit awkward. Mos Def has proven himself to be a worthy liaison between the rigid world of underground rap and popular culture at large, and once again he is up to the challenge.

The international flavor of The Ecstatic is rooted in the beats. The result is one of the most instrumentally adventuresome albums the genre has seen in quite some time. Madlib produced four of the tracks, including an early one-two punch from his Beat Konducta in India album with “Auditorium” and “Wahid”. These flow nicely into the gradually building horns of Preservation’s “Priority”, before heading back to the BK on “Quiet Dog”.  And so it goes as Mos trots effortlessly around the globe, going so far as to rap an entire track in Spanish on “No Hay Nada Mas”. The aforementioned “Auditorium” even features Slick Rick — hip-hop’s original international superstar — in the album’s most noteworthy guest spot.

The Ecstatic opens with a Malcolm X quote: “I for one will join in with anyone, I don’t care what color you are, as long as you want to change this miserable condition that exists on this Earth.” Aside from being a fitting intro to a political album encompassing global beats and viewpoints, this quote juxtaposes well with the album’s heaviest hitting track, “Life in Marvelous Times”. The song is as good an anthem as any for a seemingly paradoxical age that routinely sees events such as a Black man being elected president of a nation wallowing in racial inequality. Mos sums up the these roller coaster times well:

We are alive in amazing times

Delicate hearts, diabolical minds

Revelations, hatred, love and war.

And more and more and more and more

And more of less than ever before

It’s just too much more for your mind to absorb

It’s scary like hell, but there’s no doubt

We can’t be alive in no time but now.

You can be concerned about the ecological and economic crises we face. You can be optimistic about the world’s increasing tolerance. But whatever you do, don’t blink — you don’t want to miss the ride. Congratulations…you’re alive!

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