With his last two albums receiving less than enthused reactions from fans and critics alike, is The Ecstatic really worth getting excited about? Short answer: Yes.
His acting roles aside, it's been about two-and-a-half years since we last heard from the Mighty Mos Def, a.k.a. Pretty Flaco, Dante, the Boogie Man, and so on. In late 2006, he dropped the nearly fatally dull True Magic. A lackluster release with only a handful of tracks worth listening to, it had many of his loyal fans crying afoul. Rumors were then spread that the album was simply a means of getting out of his contract with Geffen. As a result, some fair-weather fans were able to let the whole debacle slide. Remember, these were many of the same listeners who either loved or chose to ignore the rap-blues-rock hybrid The New Danger.
Thus, it's important to know that when diving into The Ecstatic, you need to first take a deep breath. OK, you can let it out. Now, you need to remember or realize that with this record, Mos is not creating a sequel to his classic debut Black on Both Sides. Hell, if you've kept up with his career, you knew that already. If you need evidence, just look at The New Danger and True Magic. Whether you love or hate those records, they were clearly departures from what made the Brooklyn emcee burst onto the scene. And The Ecstatic continues that trend. So if you're not prepared for progressive, forward-thinking hip-hop, hit the stop button and throw on Black Star or something. But if you're ready, then let's get into this.
So, Mr. Def, you chose to start your latest album spitting over one of my favorite Oh No beats from Dr. No's Oxperiment? And you did it while displaying some fiery breath control? Oh man, Mos, you better not let me down with this rest of this album. Well, guess what: You didn't. But, to be fair, it took a few listens to come to that conclusion. At first, it's jarring to hear him do what amounts to his best DOOM impression. And no, that's not a reference to the video of him spitting the masked villain's best verses. The Ecstatic and Born Like This share several common qualities. They are nearly the same length, though Mos wins that battle by about five minutes. Both records almost entirely ditch the verse-chorus-verse structure and feature numerous shortened tracks of straight-up rhyming. But where they vary, aside from sonic and lyrical differences, is in The Ecstatic being the better and stronger album.
Like DOOM, though, Mos displays his weaknesses on here. The aforementioned problem of it being a grower is one that will make this record struggle, especially in this day and age where we easily toss things aside that don't instantly grab our attention. And the minimal number of hooks just adds to that sentiment. But, in a way, that can also work as a strength. With no hook or second verse to worry about, Mos is able to maintain his focus. He rarely trails off or leaves you questioning his intent. Instead, his statements are clear, concise, and, perhaps most importantly, precise. The exception to that rule is the one slip-up in "Pretty Dancer". Although it starts off promising, the Mighty one veers a bit too far to the left for the last minute or so. Madlib almost saves it with his funk-riddim blend. But the Beat Konducta's production isn't moving enough, as Mos keeps you wondering where he is going with his repetitive rhymes and singing.
That one misstep is not enough to slow down Pretty Flaco. The rest of the album is, more or less, fantastic. He even kills it when he throws out a curve ball like "No Hay Nada Mas", on which he mumble-sings in Spanish over a slow-burning, Latin-drenched beat from Preservation. Actually, many of his more experimental joints are some of the best. One of those is "Life In Marvelous Times", which also breaks the album into two sides, just because it's so absurdly dope. It features Mos intertwining current events with his upbringing over a neck-breaking, synth-laden Mr. Flash beat. And it doesn't hurt that it's followed by the Oh No-produced "Pistola", a love song that equates to a wild blend of funk, soul, and jazz. Standing with those tracks is "Auditorium". Featuring a stellar Slick Rick guest verse, the track is laced with one of Madlib's better Beat Konducta in India beats that ebbs and flows perfectly. "The Embassy" is worthy of similar praise as Mos rhymes nimbly over another fantastic Mr. Flash beat. If nothing else, this track makes one hope the French House DJ/producer will continue crafting soundscapes for emcees. It also makes you hope he continues to work with this emcee in particular. And the list of highlights on here goes on with cuts like the Black Star reunion on the Dilla-crafted "History" and "Twilite Speedball", a dark banger led by Godzilla-sized horns and bluesy guitar riffs.
When The Ecstatic closes with the once questionable but truly brilliant "Casa Bey", two things become devastatingly clear. First, few other albums in recent years are filled with such smooth transitions as this record. Each track flows into the next perfectly and makes it feel like an album and not just a collection of songs. Secondly, The Ecstatic feels like the album Mos has always wanted and intended to make. It's experimental and progressive without being too left-field and isolating. It's hip-hop without being a photocopy of what he's released in the past. Simply put, it's Mos being Mos: Equal parts oddball and genius, even with his flaws.