Monday, September 30, 2019

resonators 2019 - episode #021 - 'black on both sides' by mos def

You know, one thing I've struggled with on this series is the question of mystique, especially as it's the sort of thing that's tough to contextualize outside of the explicit moment in which it's felt, and it's a feeling that has persisted with certain acts for far longer than you'd expect. And you can argue there are acts who came and went so quickly with projects that seemed so transcendent that the legacy sticks for years or even decades - hell, Jay Electronica has kept hype alive on the potential of a project for over a decade now!

But if you're removed from the time, if you weren't there... well, it's complicated, because you're trying to contextualize a moment and capture its significance, but also be realistic on how the art's impact has persisted, how much of that luster remains. And I can't think of many living rappers who have captured that sort of mystique to hold it for so long as Yasiin Bey, who twenty years ago was known as Mos Def. Now we've already talked about Mos Def in this series thanks to his landmark breakthrough with Talib Kweli in Black Star, but in the process both artists were building towards solo debuts of their own on Rawkus, Talib's dropping in 2000 under his duo name Reflection Eternal with producer Hi-Tek to critical acclaim. But Mos Def had gotten ahead the year earlier winning the sort of critical acclaim that would allow weaker projects like The New Danger and True Magic to skate by before The Ecstatic would drop in 2009 to win back fans and critics... the last full, commercially released album we would get under his name Mos Def. But you can trace his mystique back to that debut album, how it left such a mark, widely hailed as one of the best hip-hop albums of the late 90s to be released... so let's not waste any more time, this is Black On Both Sides by Mos Def, and this is Resonators!

So there's a big reason I started this conversation about Black On Both Sides talking about mystique, because right from the first half dozen listens I gave this project, the more I immediately understood why it was critically beloved at the time and cemented Mos Def's influence in the scene, a sprawling project that showed Mos Def not just establishing his skills as a conscious lyricist that could cross over, but also one willing to step into genres outside of hip-hop at the time, from R&B to even hardcore punk. And yes, I won't deny that this is a really damn great album where I can hear the influence to this day... but it's also one where outside of that very specific moment in 1999, the mystique doesn't quite have the same luster, and I'd argue that nearly twenty years later, Black On Both Sides doesn't quite have the same gripping resonance, and flaws noticed even then tend to seem a bit more evident today.

And since I might as well dive straight into this heresy, let's talk about those flaws right off the back, the first being this album's length - and for once, I can see the justification that Black On Both Sides is indeed varied enough that it can make use of the hour-plus run time, it certainly never feels like a boring or one-dimensional listen. No, the word I'm more inclined to use is 'sprawling', and not particularly concerned with momentum or flow as Mos Def will slip from b-boy lyricism to storytelling and painting more of a descriptive picture to the more politically charged cuts, done with a pace that makes you expect that there's a greater level of insight between the lines... and where my first real problems start to slide into focus. Now again, part of this is a question of the times and something I've grappled with throughout Resonators, the projects that lay the foundation but don't quite transcend it years later, and it's hard not to feel like chunks of Black On Both Sides lay out ideas that might have seemed revelatory at the time but don't quite have the same impact nowadays, at least not in the bars themselves. Take the album centerpiece 'Rock N Roll', which highlights the lengthy black legacy in shaping that genre where their names were often written out of history, where Mos Def actually drops names of acts like Limp Bizkit and Korn that continued that tradition by pushing hip-hop elements into nu-metal, but I'd argue the more potent statement is how the song then devolves into a killer and convincing Bad Brains-esque hardcore punk breakdown rather than what feels like now an observation that doesn't progress further. Of course, the counterpoint to that is how the black influence in musical genres is often overlooked, even to this day - and that's true, for the record - my problem with this album is more linked to how Mos Def's observations are populist enough to grab attention, but don't take that added step to cut into the system beneath it. Oh, he notes the impact: 'Mr. N-word' is a great and still relevant example highlighting systemic racism, as are the more class-conscious 'Got' and 'Mathematics' and the creepily prophetic 'New World Water', but they feel just a half-step away from being truly revolutionary, with the pivot towards 'peace and love' as more of the answer kind of undercutting this. Prime example, for as much as I really like the low-key melody and flow of 'UMI Says' - one of many examples of Mos Def's singing across this album in a way that I did not expect to like as much as I did, and good evidence of that genre-bending - when he licensed the song to Nike, he changed lines on the bridge from wanting 'black people to be free' to wanting 'all people to be free', which popularized the song but also sucked away some of its impact.

And while most people won't notice or care about such little changes, it does change how I viewed Black On Both Sides, especially when it circles around Mos Def himself. Now again, he's a really great rapper - his technical wordplay is solid as hell, he's got real charisma as an MC and can easily hold his own opposite Busta Rhymes and Talib Kweli on songs here, and I'd argue he's even a decent singer to handle his own hooks around the plentiful samples. But there's something oddly oblique about Mos Def in how we don't really see much of a personal story to ground or lend intensity to a lot of these songs. He paints his borough of Brooklyn with vibrant colours and he can set the scene remarkably well to set forth his worldview, but it's hard not to observe a little cagey distance with how we don't get many personal or revealing details about him. Hell, the most of it comes through on 'Mr. N-word' where he relates the awkward profiling by a flight attendant who later begs for his autograph, and on 'Ms. Fat Booty', which outside of including a slur ends on the punchline of 'oh, she's not interested because she's bi or a lesbian', and the framing muddies how funny we're supposed to consider it. On the flip side, though, how his own world and surrounding colours him is plainly evident, especially on the final third and most conscious section of the album, and his canny self-awareness on how hip-hop and the music industry isn't always the saving element it's painted to be is a solid highlight on 'Hip-hop' and 'Know That', and I'm always a sucker for interplay like on 'Do It Know' with Busta Rhymes, even if I'm not entirely crazy about the oddly crunchy glitch making up the melody in the production.

And while I'm there, if I want to highlight one of the greatest saving graces of this album, it comes in the production and grooves here. The sonic palette might not quite feel as warm and burnished as it was on Black Star, but Mos Def pulled a lot of organic melodies with great samples and groove behind them, rich with vintage New York boom-bap flavour but often with a live bassline that adds a ton of foundation. The richer horns backing 'Hip-hop', that striking Aretha Franklin sample for the hook of 'Ms. Fat Booty', the rattling but eerie cascades behind 'New World Water', the punchy scratches and swagger of 'Know That', the flip across three different samples that still feels remarkably cohesive on 'Brooklyn' along with an amusing Red Hot Chili Peppers interpolation, the roiling funk of 'Mr. N-word' and of course how DJ Premier delivered off the sharper guitar line of 'Mathematics', but there's also a smoothness and flair for stepping into slightly weirder sounds that Mos Def is just as credible with. The dusty, almost jazzy stutter of sandy drums across 'Love' and 'Speed Law', the crunchy squonk of the keyboards on 'Got' that keeps up that same gurgle across 'Habitat', and especially the bassy groove across the twinkling chimes on 'Umi Says' highlight this album's accessibility and uncanny knack for hooks, even if there are places where you wish the tempo was a little quicker. In fact, I'd argue the one place where the experimentation doesn't quite stick the landing is 'Climb', where the oily vocal layering around the organ and the twinkling, quasi-futuristic blur just feels like an odd interlude where the groove and blending never quite clicks. But again, that's what you get when you have an experiment that doesn't quite stick the landing, and Black On Both Sides is going to give Mos Def plenty of time to experiment.

But as a whole... this is the sort of project where I completely understand why it was so influential in its time, and if its luster has faded a bit, that's more because it feels like a great solo debut that has the indulgence of such a project and feels characteristic of the time: smart and well-constructed but could afford to dive deeper, experimental but a little flabby in patches. Unlike most of the albums I've covered in this year's Resonators I can definitely see how Mos Def could push a project like this for accessibility and crossover, which no doubt reinforced his reputation and mystique. And even if I don't love this the same way I loved Black Star, what Mos Def brought on this project is absolutely worth many relistens, which is why I'm giving this an 8/10 and absolutely a recommendation. Mos Def might not have given us a wealth of material to really decode throughout the past twenty years, but on this alone, his legacy is secure - and worth checking out, for sure.

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