out June 9th
The opening of Mos Def’s latest album, The Ecstatic, could hardly be more timely.His propensity for Arabic prayers and activist quotes seems particularly apropos given the fact that the album was released just three days before the Iranian election that has sparked protest and uprising.The opening lines of the album – taken from Malcolm X’s 1964 Oxford Union Debate – could be a direct address to Iran:“You’re living at a time of extremism, a time of revolution, a time when there’s got to be a change.People in power have misused it, and now there has to be a change and a better world has to be built and the only way it’s going to be built is with extreme methods.”
This puts me in an interesting position.Because The Ecstatic is not a political album.It’s not really a statement on the world today, or an in-depth look at the issues.It’s just a really good album from a talented artist who happens to have serendipitously contextualized his art-form.Sure, it has an international feel, with a sprinkling of middle eastern beats and a sampling of Spanish turns of phrase (including most of “No Hay Nada Mas”) giving some worldly flavor to the record.But despite possible aspirations to the contrary, The Ecstatic doesn’t have international importance.This is a statement that Mos Def is back in the rap game, not a statement that Mos Def is a statesman.
I don’t know if Mos would agree with that, but let’s pretend he does and go from there.After all, it’s tough to mentally juxtapose Mos Def re-enacting Ghostbusters with Jack Black in Be Kind Rewind with Mos Def serving up monologues regarding Iraq’s opinion of United States soldiers.So let’s turn that quote’s focus onto a topic with which Mos Def is more familiar – hip hop as a whole.
You see, the comparison works perfectly there as well.We’re living in a time of extremism – autotune and prefabricated pop hits dominate the hip-hop scene.Flo Rida and Soulja Boy top charts while grinders and more “authentic” (whatever that means) rappers shout to get noticed.The people in power have misused it, and it’s time for a revolution.It’s time for the old order to re-assert itself.For Dre to come back.For Outkast to make some noise.For Mos Def to return to his roots.A better hip hop world must be built.
When looked in this light, The Ecstatic is exemplary.It’s concise, catchy, and a definitive sign that Mos isn’t giving up on his flow.Coming on the heels of two lackluster albums, and in the middle of a booming acting career, it’s a necessary step that solidifies Mos Def as an active player in hip hop.The album is organic without being sprawling (hi The Roots!), quick-tongued without being unintelligible (hi Twista!), and confident without being self-congratulatory (hi Cool Kids!).
The singles leading up to The Ecstatic’s release are indicative of both the scope and quality of the album.The first tune to drop, “Life In Marvelous Times” is the closest to a radio-friendly hit that the album offers, with brass orchestration and synthesizers backing an uplifting flow.The second single, “Quiet Dog”, features speedy verses dropped over a simple clap and block combo that drives the track like a metronome.The third, “Casa Bey”, speeds things up further to bear witness to Mos Def’s facile flow and wordplay skills.All three songs are impressive and fun in their own way, belying the diversity found on the album.
The production on The Ecstatic is sweet too, with tracks from Madlib, Madlib’s younger brother Oh No, Chad Hugo of the Neptunes, Preservation, Mr. Flash, and even J.Dilla.Some of the beats are recycled from elsewhere, but it makes no difference – Def makes them seems brand spanking new again.Shying away from guest spots, the album is largely devoid of cameos save a nice Talib Kweli verse on “History” and some stellar lines from Slick Rick on “Auditorium”.This album rests definitively on Def’s shoulders.He can carry it.
Mos Def, it must be said, strikes me as one of the coolest dudes ever.Maybe I’m just playing into the Stuff White People Like stereotype, but I would love to hang out with him – he’s laid back, funny, talented, passionate, and to top it all off, he’s friends with Dave Chappelle.Unbeatable.The Ecstatic boasts similar strengths – the work of a talented and passionate artist that retains a laid back feel.It’s the perfect antidote for hip hop heads tired of autotune but not feeling most backpack rap.It’s a summertime album made for back porches, best served on a hot day with some cold lemonade.
The Ecstatic isn’t Mos Def’s best album.It’s not the best rap album of 2009 or a timeless classic.But it’s a reassuring release from an old friend that holds something for everything.In our time of extremism, the album is a moderated sampling of styles and themes from around the world and around the genre – hop in and take a ride.
To enter to win a copy of Mos Def’s The Ecstatic, leave a comment with your thoughts on Mos Def, the tracks you’ve just sampled, or (if you’ve listened to it) the album. Make sure you leave your name/email address in the provided fields! Entries will be accepted until July 2nd.