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Mos Def’s Ecstatic, Wonderfully Strange Ra

Nick Anderson | Monday, September 7, 2009

Eminem, T.I., Ludacris, LL Cool J, Ice Cube, Ice-T, Method Man, RZA, and even Snoop Dogg. All rappers turned, with varying degrees of success, into actors. Hollywood, for some unexplained reason, keeps casting rappers in their big-budget movies. These parts have included bit roles in big budget comedies, a supporting actor in Oscar fare, a less than stereotypical street thug and several family fun fests. By all accounts, it doesn’t really make sense.
Rare, however, is the rapper-turned-actor who is actively trying to do both without one noticing the other. Mos Def is on that quest. He’s doesn’t promote his music with movies, hasn’t made a vanity piece (his only cameo was in Talladega Nights) and his most critically acclaimed role was in an off-Broadway play.
By all appearances, Def’s music has taken an unfortunate back seat to his acting. This would all be a very sad story if it was not for his return to form in “The Ecstatic. “
Def never was a typical rapper. His back story sounds familiar: born in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, he would have known of the already famous rappers from his neighborhood including The Notorious B.I.G., Big Daddy Kane and GZA. All three made careers walking the line between glorifying and regretting their now-stereotypical “gangsta” lifestyle.
Def never quite fell into that trap. His immense talent was recognized early and he landed a collaboration with De La Soul as well as a role in the short-lived “Cosby Mysteries” (yes, that Cosby).  His music took off before his acting and two classic albums, “Mos Def and Talib Kweli are Black Star” and “Black on Both Sides” made a stir in the 90’s. Both confronted issues Def was immersed in growing up. Instead of violence, vulgarity, and shock value presented as the focus, which often happens in rap, he centered his music and identity on his race, passion, and religion.
Without fail, he was regulated to the position of the socially conscious rapper. At the time the title came with a point of pride. Today, even with the recent resurgence of hope, it brings an air of arrogance from the artist and indifference from the public.
The opening moments of his new album, “The Ecstatic,” are odd. The words are a speech of a black political leader telling the listener, “You’re living at a time of extremism, a time of revolution … and now there has to be a change and a better world has to be built.”
This is an album from the age of Obama, what should we expect? But quoting a speech from Malcolm X comes as a surprise. It follows the phrase that has opened each of his albums, “Bismillah ir Rahman ir Raheem” (In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful). Somewhere between these two phrases lies “The Ecstatic.”
“The Ecstatic” is a showcase of Def’s talents. His voice offers his strongest point, easily transitioning from rapping on “The Embassy” to singing on “Priority” with most songs sitting easily on an ODB-esque flow, both familiar and entirely different. Def’s flow could offer some of the smoothest hooks in the industry if only he were to consistently utilize a standard song structure.
Instead, the versus-chorus-verse formula ditched for a stream-of-thought style dependant on bridges. The results are songs that won’t receive much radio play but will embrace the listener in a welcoming strangeness. This ear for odd sounds lead to fruitful production work from Madlib, Oh No and the late J Dilla, all of which are brilliant.
Def’s music is unique by any standard. After a couple of listens, Def’s adopted moniker, The Boogie Man, comes to the forefront. It’s mysterious and at times uncomfortable but intriguing and original. In the end, it’s a return to form, a turning point after two less-than-stellar albums, a wonderfully strange, sonically diverse and oddly inspiring work of art.