Mos Def’s 1999 album Black on Both Sides was an epic with true range, musically and intellectually. He solidified his reputation as an MC (well-earned from the dynamite Mos Def and Talib Kweli Are Black Star album as well as various singles and guest appearances) while smoothly blending a broad array of styles and genres into his music. The album’s music was a cross-section of black history that also felt modern; the lyrics deftly probed issues of identity (what it means to be African-American, to be American, to be human). Five years and countless non-musical endeavors later, Mos Def has returned with Black on Both Sides‘s successor, titled The New Danger. Unfortunately, though, the album feels neither new or dangerous. It’s not without its bright spots, yet it reaches dramatically but clumsily for the diversity and freshness of the first album, and comes up short.
The New Danger feels less like a sequel to Black on Both Sides than a sequel to two of that album’s songs: “Rock N Roll”—a statement on the roots of rock ‘n’ roll in black music which exploded into a hard rock song partway through—and “Umi Says”, where Mos Def cast aside rhymes to display a sensitive soulful singing voice. The New Danger starts off in the shadow of the latter song, with “The Boogie Man Song”, with Mos singing casually over jazzy production by Raphael Sadiq. The song betrays Mos Def’s interest in analyzing the spotlight, the role of the entertainer, as does his blackface pose in a photo on the inside cover. The song is enticing but not fulfilling, with lyrics that come close to insight without really getting there. All of Mos’s singing forays on this album fall into this category of ‘interesting but not terribly exciting’, whether it’s the quiet-storm come-on “The Panties”, the awkward blues number “Blue Black Jack” (with Shugie Otis), or the slightly less awkward but seemingly improvised bluesy ‘gangsta woman’-ode “Bedstuy Parade & Funeral March” (with Paul Oscher). The would-be sucess story of the pack is the eight-minute “Modern Marvel”, an extended attribute to Marvin Gaye—the man, the mood, the songs, the attitude—that includes Mos channeling Marvin at his most contemplative and overt allusions to some of Marvin’s songs (and Curtis Mayfield’s). “Modern Marvel” captures the thoughtful side of Mos Def well, and is a worthwhile continuation of soul music’s social conscience, but it also feels self-indulgent, with the length and the limitations of Mos’s singing voice draining the song’s power.
Of the ‘Mos as soul/blues singer’ tracks, “Bedstuy Parade” in particular has two qualities that run through most of The New Danger: it feels like it was made up on the spot and the lyrics are so simple that they almost vanish into thin air. Hip-hop, rock, blues, jazz, soul—the various musics that Mos Def is trafficking in here—all historically can benefit from on-the-spot invention and a feeling of freedom, and none need complex lyrics to work (in fact, an easy argument can be made for the power of keeping things simple). Yet here the improvisatory feeling seems less the mark of inspiration than of ill-preparation, and simplicity all too often seems to be covering up a lack of things to say. That’s especially clear on a batch of songs that can collectively be described as “Rock N Roll Part Two”. These songs lack the overt message of Black on Both Sides’ “Rock N Roll”—the song’s most interesting aspect—and keep the ‘rocking out’ part. Much of The New Danger is like an extensive exercise to prove that song’s thesis that black people can rock better than anyone, that they invented rock. But the rock sounds here are in no way risky or even interesting; on songs like “Zimzallabim”, “Ghetto Rock” and “The Easy Spell” it’s just hard-rock, Hendrix-imitating guitars added to hip-hop attitude and simplistic rhymes.
The simplicity of Mos Def’s lyrics and rhyming style can’t be overestimated as the key reason The New Danger isn’t up to par. When he sings, the lyrics never delve too deeply beneath the surface, as if he’s too impressed that he’s trying something new to develop the songs too fully. And even worse, when he rhymes, he either sounds like he’s freestyling, and not doing a very good job at it (the worst example being “The Rape Over”), just being lazy (“Sunshine”, which with its way-too-typical Kanye West beat sounds like the epitome of laziness), or giving airtime over to a less-talented MC that he still fails to upstage (producer/MC Minnesota, on “Grown Man Business”). The sole exceptions are “Sex, Love & Money”, an atypical moment where beats, rhymes and textures come together in a sharp, laidback-sexy way, and “Life Is Real”, where bright soul horns perfectly complement a pleasurable walk through life’s problems. For the most part, though, Mos Def—a former poet and one of hip-hop’s best rhyme-writers, sounds like he’s suffering from rhymer’s block.
Mos Def’s desire to expand the boundaries of hip-hop is admirable, but The New Danger too often feels like it’s taking hip-hop backwards, not forwards. None of Mos Def and his band Black Jack Johnson’s attempts at rock are doing anything that hasn’t been done before; they lack the force of thousands of bands before them, and they fail to mix rap with rock in a way that feels cohesive even, not to mention pushing either genre in a new direction. The New Danger has ambition but lacks invention; its 18 songs wear you down when they should be firing you up.
// Notes from the Road
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