Despite the ravages of time and sporadic activity on his part, many of us older underground cats still remember a time when the Mighty Mos was going to single-handedly resurrect Hip Hop back in the mid to late 90s, saving it from the tinny excess of shiny suits and Master P grunts. Back before most saw a problem, he appeared on De La’s slept-on “Stakes is High” as a next generation son of the Native Tongues. By the time Black Star dropped, it felt more like a movement than an album release, as the duo (and their label Rawkus) seemed to represent all that was pure and good about our music. The classic “Black on Both Sides” simply added further confirmation that this cat here was what we hoped Nas would be (forget that Nas was hoped to be the new Rakim), an emcee with the total package of god-like perspective and mind-blowing talent. We even forgave him his faults (which seemed more like quirks back then), like the face-slap hypocrisy of critiquing rap producing biters over Slick Rick’s “Children’s Story” (as well as lyrically jacking Rakim and BDP in time), because, well, at least it was dope and well-chosen aping. Yet as time went by, the quirks became traits. We still forgave him, for his forays into acting and extended absence from the mic (cause a brother with that much charisma deserves the silver screen), and even later for his largely awful fixation with rock-rap (Jack Johnson), which recalled the even worse Ice-T pet project Body Count. Well, we almost pardoned that. By the time “The New Danger” rolled around, many had forgotten what the fuss was about in the first place, but we still remembered. But waiting more than five years to bless us again, and then with an erratic release notable more for its experimentation rather than genius, caused some of that gilded shine to crack off. The significant missteps of the release (beat-jacking again with “The Rape Over”!) didn’t help either, and yet he still showed enough of that original â€˜true magic’ to keep us hoping for the emcee we wanted and needed Mos to be.
But now it’s 2007, damn near a decade since Mos has brought a classic to the table. For most rappers, a decade without satisfying product is a slump on par with my man Mauer going hitless for an entire seasonâ€”no coming back from that shit. But despite all the frustration, we still remember ’99, when we knew this cat just had that special something to save us all (despite how ridiculous Hip Hop needing a savior was and still is). But like Snoop after “Doggystyle” and Nas after “Illmatic,” we (and he) can never go back from whence we came. No man is without flaws, just as no MC can live up to the impossible standards of a savior. And so it goes with Mos’ newest joint, a terribly packaged (no liner notes of even back cover) collection of slightly flawed, occasionally satisfying and fleetingly brilliant moments that hint at something rapturous and well known but never quite materialize into transcendence.
Things start promising enough with the DJ Epik-produced title track, where it sounds like the Black Dante is practically sleep-walking through his lyric sheet, which comes off as either effortless or lazy but still beats 90% of other MCs best stuff. Unfortunately, the trend of experimentation and various vocal turns other than rhyming (call it Andre 3000 syndrome) continues to be a disheartening trend on “True Magic,” as Mos spends inordinate amounts of time crooning, cooing, mumbling, jive-talking and chanting, while only dropping a handful of wall-to-wall verbal beatdowns or stories. The dude wants us to be as enamored with his vocal stylings as he is, but it ain’t happening. Mos still brings some interesting ideas to the table, but unlike previous efforts to educate and illustrate (see the superior “New World Water” for a tutorial), here the presentation is frequently standard, or worse, vague. With varying degrees of success he rails against America’s drug problem, the New Orleans debacle and the current vapid state of mainstream Hip Hop in between “experimental” tracks that can more accurately be described as rambling observations in the vein of Com Sense’s “Pop’s Rap”s. Sonically the album is even rockier, as beats sound either too futuristic and clean, with synthesizers and computer programs doing the work of crate digging (“A Ha,” “Dollar Day,”), or simply bland and repetitive (“Undeniable,” “Fake Bonanza”). Many of the tracks also sound slightly incomplete (like an intro before full kickoff), as if missing an essential bassline or melodic sample that never materializes. And for everyone keeping score at home, Mos makes it 3-for-3 in the beat jacking category by swiping “Liquid Swords” for perplexing reasons and to little effectiveness.
In sum, the beautiful mess of Mos Def makes for a bumpy listen. To be fair, there are countless great elements to be found, from Mos’ well-hidden but still razor-sharp story-telling skills, to the soulful (if not outright Kanye-esque) production of Minnesota, to the genuine attempts Mos still takes to craft relevant anthems for all oppressed peoples. But the good intentions and the handful of bangers can’t mask the fact that all the lyrical and musical doodling leaves the project as a whole sounding largely un-fleshed-out and tossed off. Like his previous missteps, he seems too enamored with individual instruments, sounds and vocal turns rather than song and album length compositions, leaving many of the tracks feeling like interesting but forgettable jam sessions rather than clear artistic statements. Still maddening contradictory, there’s a moment late on the record that finds the (once-)Mighty Mos rambling on sing-song style about nothing in particular; suddenly, he begins a recitation of Smooth’s classic “DWYCK” verse: “I’m infallible/ not into fail-i-ureâ€¦I write to unite to bring truth to the light/ the dialogue is our own/the dialogue is our own/the dialogue is our own,” choosing to repeat the proclamation of originality instead of finishing that universally-known manifesto with its proper (and cruelly, ironically fitting) last line. Is he trying to torture us, or was this a random decision?! Either way, I’m pretty disappointed.
Point blank then: unless Jesus himself decides to resurrect his black ass and drop that looong-awaited debut soon, we are stuck (for better or worse) with flawed heroes like Nas and Mos, artists who showed impossible promise and then inevitably fell short of the hype, but boldly continue on the realer, bumpier path of true artistic and personal expression. Let’s just hope for Mos’ next time it’s a “God’s Son” rather than a “Nastradamus.”