Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Mos Def

  • Black on Both Sides [Rawkus, 1999] A-
  • The New Danger [Geffen, 2004] A-
  • The Ecstatic [Downtown, 2009] A

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Black on Both Sides [Rawkus, 1999]
"Building it now for the promise of the infinite," Black Star's star overreaches; delete the right tracks, which is always the catch, and his solo CD would pack more power at 55 minutes than it does at 71. I hope someday he learns that what made Chuck Berry better than Elvis Presley wasn't soul, even if that rhymes with rock and roll the way Rolling Stones rhymes with (guess who he prefers) Nina Simone. But the wealth of good-hearted reflection and well-calibrated production overwhelms one's petty objections. "New World Water" isn't just the political song of the year, it's catchy like a motherfucker. "Brooklyn" and "Habitat" are no less geohistorical because they act locally. A-

The New Danger [Geffen, 2004]
Musically, Mos Def has always been a little dull--so caught up in his own smarts he let verbal flow carry his albums. Here the defining flow is sonic--a shadowy, guitar-drenched tone poem of the streets. Songs transmute into raps as the album shifts from Black Jack Johnson blues-metal toward smoother beats that quote Hair and twice reference What's Going On in mix and mood as well as content before building to a soulish horn band, some catchy rock nonsense overdubbed entirely by Mos Def, a heart ballad he very nearly sings, and a party-ready requiem cum call to action. "My work is personal, I'm a workin' person/I put in work, I work with purpose," he reminds anyone who would reduce "hard work" to a right-wing slogan. But an equally telling lyric on an album whose secret hero is Bad Brains' Dr. Know is a silly one: "Black Jack Johnson NYC/R-O-C-K-I-N-G." A-

The Ecstatic [Downtown, 2009]
You know how Will Smith makes the corny hip-hop albums you'd expect of a leading man with a sense of humor? Well, this is the arty hip-hop album you'd expect of a character actor who steals every marginal flick he's in--only unlike Smith's, Mos Def's is good. Half associative rhymes that clock in under two-and-a-half minutes, devoid of hooks but full of sounds you want to hear again, it's like a dream mixtape--one unresolved track morphing into the next to define a world hip-hop with poles in Brooklyn and Beirut. Almost every thoughtfully slurred word is comprehensible, including most of the ones he sings in Spanish, and the vision justifies the Malcolm X intro. In "The Embassy," Mos Def describes a luxury hotel as an outsider, too aware to come on like one of those thug fools who think they own a joint that'll blacklist them five years from now. And in the Bed-Stuy lookback "Life in Marvelous Times" he offers a credo: "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." A