Mos Def

The Ecstatic

(Downtown; 2009)

By Chris Molnar | 12 June 2009

It’s been five years since Mos Def last had a guest rapper—Luda at the end of the 60% inspired, 40% unforgiveable horseshit The New Danger (2004). So when Slick Rick sidles in at the end of “Auditorium,” it’s not just his best cameo since “Da Art Of Storytelling,” it’s kind of a symbolic shift into yet another phase for Mos Def, centering the album after two fast but loose, True Magic-ally (2006) dubious opening cuts. The beat is pilfered Madlib from his India excursion, but just like Naveen Andrews on Lost, Mos and Rick transform Indian into Iraqi, with some DOOM-friendly abstract commentary on “Madlib-erators.” Ha. Better is Rick’s charmingly dry roleplay as he attempts to make friends with some oddly ungrateful natives. Either way, the inventiveness of their thematic circling at least affords replay value that hasn’t really been present since Mos’ solo debut Black On Both Sides (1999).

Still, it’s probably best for Ecstatic enjoyment to not think about it too hard. Mos doesn’t have an ironclad persona or slay-you worldplay—it’s more about the atmosphere that his political swagger engenders. His cred, as it were, may have origins in the “thoughtful” Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star (1998), but Both Sides is everybody’s favorite because his trenchant observations were more block party than intro philosophy. It’s way better to receive zany history lessons, or at least assume that’s what they are, via sticky vibe osmosis than through a tape subscription to the Soulquarians lecture series. The excited detachment got weirder on The New Danger, concentrated around bravura setpieces like “Close Edge” and successful genre exercises like “The Panties.” The spiderwebs of words got angrier and artier, severely tempered by the inexplicable presence of Nickelback riffage.

Some revisionists might want to jump straight from there to The Ecstatic, but there’s still a crucial step missing. The misunderstood True Magic (2006) cut all the pretension that pure eagerness accumulated, and in a weird way might be his most purely enjoyable album—a bunch of straightforward versions of his classic themes (education, Mos Def as “realest nigga alive,” fat booties) plus, er, a Katrina song. Still kinda angry, but no “The Rape Over” here. The lack of promotion and cover art got everyone (read: still paying attention) feeling preemptively ripped off, but the whole “it’s just about the music” thing was actually appropriate: he wasn’t trying to make any urgent statement, just had some shit to get off his chest; sky wasn’t falling, life was pretty good; The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy goes a long way, or long enough, to cornering some bills. But past effectiveness as a summer album, it didn’t exactly have a lot to say beyond what it was saying. And the beats were wack, right? Mixed weirdly low?

There’s still some shitty sound quality here thanks to Mos doing a lot of picking ‘n’ choosing from his favorite preexisting instrumentals. In any case, he’s choosing from top-shelf Stones Throw beatsmiths, picking, along with Madlib, naturally, Dilla. There’s none of the taut-as-hell self-production steeped occasionally with a live band as on the first two albums, which is a shame. But what is held within is more than serviceable, echoing the bass-heavy groove of “Undeniable” in more than one place and letting the sample-raga and unpredictable references dictate a cosmopolitan feel.

Between the expansive, reverberating samples and enjoyably loose rhyming, The Ecstatic continues the relaxed schmear of True Magic, but by increasing the narrative distance from his pet social and relational problems he rediscovers more of the urgency that made his first two albums so compelling, even if he’s not as brash as he once was, a smug prick dissing the Rolling Stones and Jay-Z. Instead, he’s got Malcolm X bytes, Talib quoting Mos, Mos quoting himself, quoting Outkast, quoting CL Smooth, singing in Spanish, possibly, circling endlessly around obscure conflagrations of relational, social, fan loyalty. He takes (mostly) the good elements of his other albums—hilarious spoken word, virtuosity with nerve, twisty narratives—and sets them in cozily together while chipping at the shell a bit: fresh stuff like the funky salsa of rapidfire manifesto “Casa Bey” or the excellent Chad Hugo production on “Twilite Speedball,” which retains the swishy drums of his Neptunes joints while replacing Pharrell’s lowest common denominator hooks with glancing keys and a great sub-horns heavy-guitar thing in the verse.

Frankly, I’m not exactly sure how The Ecstatic rates next to Mos Def’s other stuff. It doesn’t have the Mariana Trench lows of The New Danger, but synthy first single “Life In Marvelous Times” is still one of the worst songs he’s ever done, a collection of meaningless bumper stickers peddling self-parody. The album is anything but boring, but like on True Magic the raggedy manner sometimes lapses into a lull on non-entities like “Worker’s Comp,” even if, more often than not, it’s just convenient space to breathe. Sincerely, it seems as if Mos Def’s albums work to complement each other, winding from brash kid with more energy than good sense to more sense than energy to an uneasy mix of the two, crafting a steady, satisfying arc.

As he says on “Pistola,” over what sounds like a dropped tube amp and fading, flickering funk, “Forgive me and forget me / Make a brand new start.” What makes Mos Def still worth listening to, a decade in, is a willingness to scrap old models and be imperfect in pursuit of something, well, real-er. He may no longer be the novelistic observer of Black on Both Sides or the fearless explorer of The New Danger, or even the wised-up star of True Magic, but The Ecstatic is still imbued with all that and not making a big deal out of it, perhaps the first truly mature thing Mos Def has ever admitted.