Released June 9th
If everyone could have just forgotten about the years between the release of Mos Def’s acclaimed Black on Both Sides and the release of The Ecstatic – a period that saw the flops The New Danger and True Magic – Mos, and “alternative” hip-hop, might have been better for it. The two releases after his solo debut showed Black Dante indulging in the worst, most extreme of his experimental tendencies, and lacked the passionate delivery of his early work. The fact that one of its biggest stars was allowing his creativity to run his rap career off its rails suggested that, despite its positives, alternative hip-hop lacked the consistent appeal of commercial rap.
For those that followed Mos Def’s career, The Ecstatic should seem like the album Mos Def has wanted to make for almost a decade. This album has a unique, experimental sound, borrowing heavily from Mediterranean and Middle Eastern influences, it sports a shortened roster of producers – seven producers spread over sixteen tracks and five of them produce at least two tracks – and Mos’s more concentrated lines leave it a focused effort. What seems to annoy critics most about this album is that Mos neglected to satisfy the listeners looking for something politically charged. Instead, this album’s perspective is set on descriptions of American cities and foreign lands without providing explicit political messages.
The album explodes open with “Supermagic,” an Oh No-produced track laced with wailing guitars and women’s voices that sound like they come from a Bollywood musical. This track folds into Chad Hugo’s menacing “Twilight Speedball,” complete with bellowing horns and tip-toeing xylophone.
With the momentum built, the next producer to step in is Madlib, the star player on the Stones Throw Record label and the man who could be considered the musical foundation of this album. His first track “Auditorium” begins with Middle Eastern strings slinking under Mos’s laid back flow, fading in and then returning for a verse from Slick Rick. The two guest spots Mos picked for the album are perfect – Talib Kweli steps in later to do justice to the label “Black Star reunion” – and the Ruler’s lines, describing the feeling of alienation of a U.S. soldier in Iraq, do not disappoint. Mos’s light touch in choosing features really leaves listeners with the feeling that the album is well-rounded, bringing just enough distinct flavor to keep the album sounding fresh.
Another way the album succeeds as a unified whole is in its balance between extremes. For every Madlib track with its layered samples, imported instruments, and unhinged song structure, there’s a beat from Preservation that condenses every sound tight and focused. Even in individual songs Mos and his producers toy with the tension between chaotic and ordered styles, such as on Madlib’s “Pretty Dancer,” or his brother Oh No’s “Pistola,” where Mos spits sharp verses in between drowsy choruses. Stones Throw artists have often successfully experimented with this jumbled style of making songs and it seems that the brothers Otis and Michael do well fitting The Ecstatic in the same mold.
Noticeable deviations from the organically developed sound hurt the album, but the only major sin is committed by Mr. Flash on “Life in Marvelous Times.” The record on its own has nothing wrong with it, and it spotlights one of Mos’s strongest verses.
The windows on the av' look like sad eyes.
They fix a sharp gaze on you when you pass by
And if you care to stand, you can see 'em cry,
You can watch them scowl, feel them prowl
While they steady sizing every inch about you.
Fast math, measuring what you amount to:
The laughter, the screams,
The number rolls, the Song of Songs, the book of dreams.
Ends don't meet where the arms can't reach.
Mean streets, even when it's free it ain't cheap.
Ongoing saga, terminal diagnosis,
Basic survival requires super-heroics.
No space in the budget for a cape
That's when you gotta fly by night to save the day.
Crash landings routinely happen,
Some survive, others never rise from the ashes.
Watching asphalt and observing the Sabbath
Creates an ecstatic and there you have it.
Unfortunately, the synthetic sound of this track is jarring, too extreme of a contrast with the continuity of the rest of the album, and the overall product would have been better if Mos had discarded the track or used a different beat.
After the album starts to wind down with “Roses,” on which Mos does more singing than rapping, Kweli comes in with Dante on “History.” As good as Mos Def’s lines are Kweli’s verse over the Dilla track is what ensures a dope record.
I was born in the decade of decadence
Where they worship what they have.
Ford was president – do the math.
War was ending when the North Vietnamese
Stormed the city of Saigon.
We was like "bye," we was gone.
Let bygones by bygones
I'm gon' spread love its the Brooklyn way.
We "Get it Poppin'" like a hit chorus
The flow is historic. They can't get rid of us,
Ubiquitous, and we lay the law like Leviticus.
Ten years ago we made history so they missin' us.
The various faults shouldn’t be overlooked on The Ecstatic. Mos lacks in the lyrics department on some of the tracks, especially compared to his early work, and the album’s forty-five minute length is a little disappointing. Personally, the fact that the album got released on vinyl as a double LP is perplexing as hell. Still, the whole of the album possesses undeniable artistic quality and it shows a rejuvenated Mos Def ready to jump back into hip-hop. The closing track, built off a musical theme from Madlib’s Bossa nova duo Jackson Conti, has such high energy that it will leave listeners hoping Mos’s next (rap) project will carry the same spirit with it.
Beats: 8 Rhymes: 7 Overall: 7.5