The first time I ever heard the name Mos Def was in an old online magazine called Mired (a play on Wired magazine), with a headline that read “Mos Def Hates Whitey.” I didn’t know who Mos Def was (this was in 1997) but the headline made me laugh enough to read the article, which was actually a really solid review of a Mos Def live show. Mired is now long gone, but the memory of that headline stuck, and would ultimately lead me to buy Mos Def’s Black on Both Sides without even a cursory listening.
I purchased Black on Both Sides as an impulse buy at a mall after my roommate forced me to attend the second worst movie I’ve ever seen, George Lucas’ Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. I was so pissed off at how crappy that movie was that I went straight into Tower Records hoping to redeem my evening with a good CD purchase. I got what I was seeking in Black on Both Sides.
The album’s first track is a musical preface, much like a preface you might see in a book, and like in a book, you can skip it. It’s a four-and-a-half minute song with a three-minute intro; if your song has three minutes of introduction, your name should be Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and the song should continue another 8 minutes. The album’s second track, “Hip Hop,” is the real opener, a genre track, much in the vein of “Rock and Roll All Night,” by Kiss. It’s a meta-hip hop track; a hip-hop track about hip-hop. Mos Def’s strengths, dynamic and engaging beats, intelligent lyrics and creative flow, come together to craft this statement on hip-hop culture and the hip-hop music industry. The album launches from here into a trip around Mos’ observations on love, Brooklyn, the origins of rock music, relationships, getting robbed, racism, and just about anything and everything. When the album is over you feel like you’ve had Mos over as a guest for a week and have engaged in all the late night drunken debates on modern life that you would expect from any true friend.
“Do It Now,” with Busta Rhymes, is by far one of the catchiest tracks on the record. While the content of the lyrics aren’t the most thought-provoking, the Mos / Busta team-up is energetic and hypnotic. It’s uncharacteristic on this album in its posturing, but it’s catchy as hell. The team-up with Busta Rhymes is charismatic and punctuates Mos Def’s fluid lyrical delivery well. Following Busta’s cameo, Mos flows into “Got,” which is a lesson on how to not get robbed in New York (avoid: “High Posting when you’re far from home, or High Posting when you’re all alone.“) Mr. Def takes the listener on a tour of all the stupid things you shouldn’t do at night in the City. Advice noted, thanks Mos.
While it’s not my favorite track on the album, “New World Water” is a startling take on one of this planet’s most basic resources. A close reading of the lyrics reveals the true creativity and depth of intellect Mos puts in his lyrics. It is a dizzying tour of the importance and state of water worldwide. It is interesting to hear now, in 2008, that scientists and environmentalists are decrying the sham and environmental nightmare of commercial bottled water, while Mos Def casually mentions it in this tirade about the corporate abuses of the world’s most important, most abundant and most exploited natural resources, and he did it over ten years ago. Good show, Mos—well-played.
Black on Both Sides is still in regular rotation in my speakers, after nearly a decade. It is one of my favorite records of all time, and is probably my favorite hip-hop record of all time. And while Mos Def may or may not appreciate being featured on the “Stuff White People Like” blog, his musical appeal is certainly not lost on my fair-skinned friends.
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