Motherfuck the game.
—“Sunshine,” from The New Danger
The real hos of rap aren’t the booty-shaking video femmes, but the self-professed and corporate-processed pimps, thugs, playas and gangstas. They’re the true bitches, modern-day house niggers. Mos Def — actor-activist-wordsmith, one of hip-hop’s most charismatic thinkers — provides an antidote. But he’s also too insightful about the confluence of history, psychology and capitalism to flat out dismiss hip-hop’s minstrelsy.
On both his 1999 classic Black on Both Sides and his latest, The New Danger, Mos both subtly and explicitly calls out careerist, short-vision jigaboos — never, though, with the elitist’s disdain. It’s his combo of simmering intellect and devotion to everyday struggling black folk that makes him a hero. To say that his fans have been jonesing for The New Danger is gross understatement. And that’s part of what makes it such a huge letdown.
Nothing on the new album comes close to the sublime lyrics or inspired production of Black on Both Sides. “Close Edge,” which premiered on the first season of The Dave Chappelle Show, comes close (“I’m the catalog, you the same song”), but the TV version is superior to the CD’s. The first single, “Sex, Love and Money,” has an insistent flute that worms its way into your head and won’t leave as Mos unleashes his flow with gusto, and the anti-war “War” moves along nicely till it’s weakened by a ham-fisted rock breakdown. But the album’s platinum moment is the sweeping “Modern Marvel.” An ode to Marvin Gaye and his socially conscious work, “Marvel” braids Gaye’s “Mercy Mercy Me,” “What’s Going On” and “Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler)” into a lament at the state of the world, at how little has changed (and how much has worsened) since Gaye asked us and the Divine to save the children. As it builds, Mos offers a heartbreakingly beautiful speak-sing rap, and the musical foundation shifts from moody atmospherics to looped samples of Gaye’s ad-libbed emotionalism, at which point Mos spits his lines with fire. It’s the one time on the album that concept, content and execution fully meld and soar.
But Danger — Mos’ ambitious companion to OutKast’s The Love Below or Q-Tip’s Kamaal the Abstract — is top-heavy with fired blanks. “Boogie Man” is the sound of a blues outfit working as the house band in an Afrocentric strip joint; it’s a pugilistic yet generic swamp groove with slight lyrics but cool vocal play. Rock-rap tracks like “Zimzallabim,” “Freaky Black Greetings” and “Ghetto Rock” evoke that Negro in high school who thought that because he listened to rock (as opposed to rap, R&B, house), he was automatically on some next shit. Said Negro justifiably griped about being viewed as less than black because of his musical tastes, but he also secretly courted the outsider tag. Too much of New Danger has more than a whiff of that adolescent misstep.
Black on Both Sides was a first-person journey through big-picture themes of racism and self-construction, community and culture. The New Danger is more of the same, but more pointedly hinged on exploding the myths and distortions of black maleness that have now been uncritically embraced and commodified. The controversial black boxer Jack Johnson is the ghost in Danger’s machine; he’s invoked, sung to and honored in both song and spirit as modern-day cooning is trashed. (The fighter’s name also provides the moniker for Mos’ all-star black-rock side project, Black Jack Johnson, which features Dr. Know of Bad Brains, Bernie Worrell, and Living Colour’s Doug Wimbish and Will Calhoun.) But the concept dwarfs the execution.
The New Danger is divided between BJJ tracks and production work by Mos, the Beatnuts, Raphael Saadiq, Kanye West, Minnesota and others. The problem is that this ain’t even close to Mos Def at his best. The lyrics are often numbingly trite, void of the seamless blend of poetry and cultural reportage fans have come to expect; the musical landscapes are often self-consciously but not very deeply crafted to prove artistic growth. Yeah, he’s pushing the envelope of hip-hop. But the effort, ironically, flattens his true gifts more than it heralds untapped ones.
MOS DEF | The New Danger | (Geffen)
Mos Def plays House of Blues on Monday, October 25, and speaks at Cal State L.A. on Saturday, October 23 (see Readings).