In light of recent events concerning Yasiin Bey (formerly known as Mos Def) being arrested and then calling it quits, I decided to focus for this week on what I consider his best work yet: The Ecstatic.
I’ve been a hippity-hop (as the kids would call it) fan since leaving Queens, ironically. To be honest, I was surrounded by the music when living in the borough but never paid much attention to it since at home, my parents usually played classical Bengali songs or Whitney Houston (The Bodyguard soundtrack was on repeat until it just sounded like background noise to me). Regardless, hip-hop was a part of my world and at the same time, it wasn’t. When I moved to New Jersey, I began to associated the genre with whiteness since all around me I literally saw white kids using the N-word when repeating the lyrics and Asian-Americans wearing band-aids under their eyes to be like Nelly. It was a sad time to say the least.
Fortunately, I got into what was good music by Nas and others. That will be for another blog post though. Fast-forward to 2009 when The Ecstatic dropped. I was about done with college, just one more semester to go. I was spending my time off riding around with friends, making fun of people we saw on the sidewalk cause we’re classy, and pretending we had interesting lives. Finally, I remembered to grab Mos Def’s latest work. I was still buying CDs back then, but I hadn’t kept attention on any artists for sometime since I was so consumed by classes and being a dick. But when I did get The Ecstatic and popped it in the CD player in my car, I was still. Frozen.
From the beginning track “Supermagic” which starts off with a speech by Malcolm X on the potential for revolution, to the end “Casa Bey” in which Mos Def is just spitting to show you why he’s one of the best, I. Wouldn’t. Move.
The Ecstatic stayed in my CD player for the rest of the year. And whenever a friend would hop in, I’d definitely play it for them, and every time, they’d fall silent too, just trying to keep up with the brilliance.
The reason why I love this album is because unlike Mos Def’s previous solo albums, the production was layered and able to enjoy on its own even. Honestly, a major issue I find with “socially-conscious” rap is that while the lyrics are usually, in-depth and important to hear, the music behind it is typically boring and sounds like what your Dad would listen to, a.k.a. jazzy beats that repeat, or just a simple boom-bap that sounds like it was culled from the 80s. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy that type of music as opposed to Wacka Flocka and others, but sometimes, I’ll be listening to something by Talib Kweli and think, “Wow…this sounds so boring…” and try not to fall asleep.
Actually, I want to add here: I am a fan of Black Star, the group formed by Talbi Kweli and Mos Def. Their one album that they did together is a classic, no doubt. But, the reason why I think Mos Def is way better than Talib even though Talib might be a better lyricist, is because Mos Def understands good song-writing too. And it was evident in The Ecstatic.
Mos Def combined his skills with great production, AND an appreciation for the listener. SO while someone else like Talb might go crazy and start lecturing you on the Nigerian oil crisis in one song, stuffing the bars with references you will never understand unless you literally was in Lagos, Mos Def does his best to paint a picture and provide you an accessible way to like the material.
Mos Def, on The Ecstatic, basically taught me how to be a better writer.
I understood the balancing act one must always be aware of, between description and flow.
A perfect example of this would be the following lines from the song on the album, “Life in Marvelous Times”:
“Bright moments, bright moments always come back vivid
The fifth grade was epic city-wide test pressure
The pre-crack era
Mr. Schumer, what a prick
Attitude match his wardrobe, uglier than sin
This is Bed-Stuy eighty-two
Ninth floor, three tiny rooms, one view
Bucktown, Roosevelt House
Their green grass is green; our green grass is brown
Shots rang, my phone wasn’t touch tone
Were heavy beef in the street, E.T. had to flee
Great heavens, good grief
Hungry bellies, bright gold on their teeth”
Do you see how Mos Def manages to show you an entire neighborhood as if opening the palm of his hand, and you’re peering down at this orb of light? Do you see how he gives you a taste of what it was like living in that specific area in Brooklyn at that specific time, without going overboard with it? Again, it’s usually very little he offers up in terms of verbosity. The line “their green grass is green; our green grass is brown” is enough for someone to get an idea of the area that Mos Def is trying to convey and the themes of disparity and still surviving.
Of course, a lot of the material is political and socially aware. Yet, Mos Def’s genius lies in his ability to also touch on love, romance, heartbreak, while discussing big-world issues. Usually, songs that stay political are simple that. And songs about love are just songs about love, as if the two worlds are separate. What Mos Def does is include both in a song, which is how people live their lives anyway. Heck, even when I’m being “political” I’m still motivated by love. There is no political moment versus moment of friendship. Our lives are interwoven, as he describes in “Roses”:
“Power and grace
Yellow for friendship, red for love
Black for the universal stars above
Pink buds that I bought her on Valentine
She said it was forever then she changed her mind
I said a little prayer then I cleared my eyes
Cause I feel the draw on my heartstrings, drawing the line…”
There’s a lot more I can say about this, but I’ll just tell you that this album changed my life. Truly. And if you give it a chance, it might do the same for you.
I’m leaving a link here so you can order it for yourself, although I’d encourage you to find a local record store instead. I’m guessing that’s what Yasiin Bey (a.k.a. Mos Def) and his major influence would want you to do:
“You’re living at a time of extremism, a time of revolution
A time where 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 is going to be built is with extreme methods
And I for one will join with anyone, don’t care what color you are
As long as you want change this miserable condition that exists on this earth