The Underrated: Mos Def

By @TrueGodImmortal

There are so many legends in the hip hop that somehow never get the true credit that they deserve and one of those names is Mos Def. The Brooklyn native is one of the best wordsmiths to come through the genre over the last 25 years, but due to his lack of releases, he seems to go largely ignored in terms of being a legend. Mos Def arrived on the scene in 1994, starting out as a member of the group UTD (Urban Thermo Dynamics), while making appearances on albums from De La Soul and Da Bush Babees. While UTD didn't seem to pan out the way the group expected, Mos began looking into a solo career, and with that, he found his way to Rawkus Records. With Rawkus, he would essentially be a solo artist and a part of a duo, a super duo to be exact, by the name of Blackstar. Blackstar was peak hip hop lyricism and alongside another Brooklyn native in Talib Kweli, Mos found a comfort zone in hip hop instantly.

He would release his first solo single in 1997, the slept on gem known as "Universal Magnetic". Mos would find himself traveling in the underground hip hop circuit as the Blackstar project began to become a reality. Mos would make an appearance on the Rawkus Records compilation  Lyricist Lounge, and he would rap alongside the legendary Q-Tip on "Body Rock". This was my first time hearing Mos, as I had the Lyricist Lounge album on cassette tape and I remember being intrigued by his verse and his lyrical composite. When the Blackstar was released near the end of 1998, I remember being one of the very few to own a copy of it. I'll admit. Talib Kweli wasn't my favorite MC, but every verse Mos put out on this album sounded like the gospel to me at a much younger age. Fast forward 20 years and I feel that way even more. I've gone on record to say that there is no rapper in the game that lyrically had a run quite like Mos Def in his prime, and I still struggle to find someone better. I'll take this a step further: I don't think I've heard anyone who lyrically crafted verses better on an album than Mos Def on the Blackstar album. Now, trust me, I get that's a lot to say and there are other artists who come close (Andre 3000 on ATLiens, Nas on Illmatic, etc), but the vivid poetics and the clarity within the lyricism of Mos is undeniable.

In reflection, Blackstar's one and only album is a classic. The main reason for that remains Mos. Now, don't get me wrong, Kweli is great as well, but when I look back at the album, everything I remember is rooted in Mos. Whether it's the smooth hook he sings on the soulful "Brown Skin Lady", his immaculate verse to start off the Common featured "Respiration", his underrated lyrical frenzy on "Hater Players", or his ending verse on "Twice Inna Lifetime", Mos can do no wrong on this album. However, the pinnacle of his work on this project comes on the introspective "Thieves In The Night", which might be one of the top 5 greatest verses in hip hop history. Take a look at why:

"Yo, I'm sure that everybody out listening agree/
That everything you see ain't really how it be/
A lot of jokers out running in place, chasing the style/
Be a lot going on beneath the empty smile/
Most cats in my area be loving the hysteria/
Synthesized surface conceals the interior/
America, land of opportunity/ Mirages and camouflages, more than usually/
Speaking loudly, saying nothing, you confusing me, you losing me/
Your game is twisted, want me enlisted in your usury/
Foolishly, most men join the ranks cluelessly/
Buffoonishly accept the deception/
Believe the perception/
Reflection rarely seen across the surface of the looking glass/
Walking the street, wondering who they be looking past/
Looking gassed with them imported designer shades on/
Stars shine bright, but the light rarely stays on/
Same song, just remixed, different arrangement/
Put you on a yacht but they won't call it a slave ship/
Strangeness, you don't control this, you barely hold this/
Screaming brand new, when they just sanitized the old shit/
Suppose it's, just another clever Jedi mind trick/
That they been running across stars through all the time with/
I find it's distressing, there's never no in-between/
We either niggas or Kings, we either bitches or Queens/
The deadly ritual seems immersed in the perverse/
Full of short attention spans, short tempers, and short skirts/
Long barrel automatics released in short bursts/
The length of black life is treated with short worth/
Get yours first, them other niggas secondary/
That type of illing that be filling up the cemetery/
This life is temporary but the soul is eternal/
Separate the real from the lie, let me learn you/
Not strong, only aggressive cause the power ain't directed/
That's why we are subjected to the will of the oppressive/
Not free, we only licensed/
Not live, we just exciting/
Cause the captors own the masters to what we writing/
Not compassionate, only polite, we well trained/
Our sincerity's rehearsed in stage, it's just a game/
Not good, but well behaved cause the camera survey/
Most of the things that we think, do or say/
We chasing after death just to call ourselves brave/
But everyday, next man meet with the grave/
I give a damn if any fan recall my legacy/
I'm trying to live life in the sight of God's memory/"

There is far too much to unpack with that verse, and there are so many layers to it. There are double entendres, some metaphors, internal rhyme schemes, but most of all, it is one of the most concise verses of all time. Each word seems written with a sharp precision, driving home the point without forcing it, enlightening while still keeping the energy high. After the Blackstar album, Mos would end up releasing his solo project, and it would become just as important to hip hop as the Blackstar album, maybe more so. His 1999 release Black On Both Sides, is a true classic, as it showcased the diversity within his sound and is seen by many to be an alternative hip hop album. Black On Both Sides navigates through smooth soulful production, boom bap style bangers, live instrumentation, and Neo-Soul styled musings to create a more complete project than what Blackstar gave us. Whether you loved the eye opening "New World Water", the genre bending "Climb", the standard hip hop gem (produced by DJ Premier) "Mathematics", or even the Blackstar anthem "Know That", you knew you were getting something special with this album.

My three favorite songs from the album are "Ms. Fat Booty", "Umi Says", and the excellent "Mr. Nigga", and that's rare for my favorite songs of a hip hop classic to be the singles. While "Ms. Fat Booty" experienced mainstream success and became a hit, at the essence, it is a superb storytelling track that shows Mos going through the motions with a woman that caught his attention over time. With "Umi Says", the track just shines very bright with the harmonized vocals from Mos and the simple but effective lyrics. It feels like an anthem of sorts and the melody is quite captivating, inspiring anyone to sing along to it. As far as the Q-Tip featured "Mr. Nigga", there are a lot of elements to this track that make it legendary. Essentially, the song centers around the irony that is America and the fact that as a black man, even as the most successful black man in the world, you'll still be seen other races as lesser. The overall message is to continue striving and being successful, but remember that your success doesn't provide you a new window or a new door into the world's psyche. For me, it is the final two verses of the song that really drive home the point, and they are possibly two of the most vivid verses of the album in retrospect.

"Yo, the Abstract with the Mighty Mos Def/
White folks got it muffled across beneath they breath/
But they'll say it out loud again/
When they get with they close associates and friends/
You know, sneak it in with they friends at the job/
Happy hour at the bar, while this song is in they car/
And even if they've never said it, lips stay sealed/
They actions reveal how their hearts really feel/
Like, late night I'm on a first class flight/
The only brother in sight, the flight attendant catch fright/
I sit down in my seat, 2C/
She approach officially, talking about, Excuse me/
Her lips curl up into a tight space/
Cause she don't believe that I'm in the right place/
Showed her my boarding pass/ and then she sort of gasped/
All embarrassed, put an extra lime on my water glass/
An hour later here she come by, walkin' past/
I hate to be a pest but my son would love your autograph/
(Wowwww.. Mr. Nigga I love you, I have all your albums!..)
They stay on nigga patrol on American roads/
And when you travel abroad/
They got world nigga law/
Some folks get on a plane, go where they please/
But I go over seas and I get over-seized/
London, Heathrow/
Me and my people/
They think that illegal's a synonym for negro/
Far away places, customs agents flagrant/
They think the dark faces/ Smuggle weight in they cases/
Bags inspected, now we arrested/
Attention directed to contents of our intestines/
Urinalyis followed by X-rays/
Interrogated and detained 'til damn near the next day/
No evidence, no apology, and no regard/
Even for the big American rap star/
For us especially, us most especially/
A Mr. Nigga VIP jail cell, just for me/
(If I knew you were coming I'd have baked a cake)/
Just got some shoe-polish, painted my face/
They say they want you successful, but then they make it stressful/
You start keeping pace, they start changing up the tempo/"

The second verse is an interesting one. It is a look into how traveling for anyone black at the time was a bit of a hassle, especially if you weren't sitting in coach. While that's more so relatable for the wealthy, it does apply to those of us who want to travel first class or just travel in style and get met with stares or mumbling under the breath from others. While the verse paints a very clear picture and delivers, I find the third verse of this song is severely underrated in how well it was executed and it might be the best verse of the entire song.

"You can laugh and criticize Michael Jackson if you wanna/
Woody Allen molested and married his step-daughter/
Same press kicking dirt on Michael's name/
Show Woody and Soon-Yi at the playoff game/
Holding hands, sit back and just bug, think about that/
Would he get that type of dap if his name was Woody Black?/
O.J. found innocent by jury of his peers/
And they been fucking with that nigga for last five years/
Is it fair, is it equal, is it just, is it right?/
Do you do the same shit when the defendant face is white?/
If white boys doing it, well, it's success/
When I start doing it well, it's suspect/
Don't hate me, my folks is poor, I just got money/
America's five centuries deep in cotton money/
You see a lot of brothers caked up, yo straight up/
It's new, y'all livin off of slave traders' paper/
But I'ma live though, yo I'm a live though/
I'm putting up the big swing for my kids, yo/
Got my mom the phat water-front crib, yo/
I'ma get her them pretty bay windows/
I'ma cop a nice home to provide in/
A safe environment for seeds to reside in/
A fresh whip for my whole family to ride in/
And if I'm still Mr. Nigga, I won't find it surprising/"

The third verse is the reality. Often times, we see the world overlooks the transgressions of the white celebrity and wealthy, while someone managing to attack and tear down the Black wealthy with no true rhyme or reason. The success obtained by folks of a darker hue usually comes through dedication and hard work within a system not designed to help us in any way, and the way Mos eloquently plays out the scenarios through each verse is a work of art. Honestly, as the years have gone by, "Mr. Nigga" has become my favorite song from Black On Both Sides, and the more I listen to it, the better it gets, which is a rare thing for an album that's almost 20 years old now. Not to mention, the Gil-Scott Heron sample for "Mr. Nigga" is honestly one of the smoothest. Black On Both Sides is a classic for sure and when I think about it, it's probably the last time we heard Mos at his absolute best.

Mos took a bit of a break from music to do acting and we would see his passion begin to shine through. After a few small roles alongside the likes of Bill Cosby (The Cosby Mysteries), Michael Jackson (Ghosts), Beyonce (Carmen: A Hip Hopera), Halle Berry (Monster's Ball), and Jada Pinkett (Bamboozled), Mos would have his breakout role alongside Taye Diggs and Sanaa Lathan in Brown Sugar, playing a cab driver with rap dreams. He would also contribute to the soundtrack, crafting a solid title track for it. 
Mos would go on to star in a Tony award winning play, then appear in a blockbuster film The Italian Job, along with award nominations for his roles in The Woodsman and Something The Lord Made. Mos became a successful actor and a critically acclaimed actor at that, but musically he still had something to say. 

His 2004 release The New Danger isn't remembered as fondly as the first two projects he appeared on, but it was a solid album that gave us tracks like the all time classic "The Panties", "Close Edge", the scathing "The Rape Over", "Modern Marvel", and my favorite "Sunshine". The New Danger was a slight letdown from Black On Both Sides, but I will give it credit for being a bit more experimental. I think most of us wanted another classic and instead we got an album that went against the standard like his debut, but it just wasn't as precise. Still, his verse on "The Rape Over" seems to ring true even today... perhaps more so, as Mos borrows the instrumental from Jay-Z's classic "The Takeover" to drop some game on the masses. 

"Old white men is runnin' this rap shit/

Corporate force is runnin this rap shit/
A tall Israeli is runnin this rap shit/
We poke out our asses for a chance to cash in/
Cocaine, is runnin this rap shit/
Dro, 'gnac and E-pills is runnin this rap shit/
The rape over, turn your face over nigga/
No god in disguise -- it's me, game over/
Hey lil souljahs is you ready for war?/
But don't ask what you're fighting for/
Just hope that you sur--vived the gunfight, the drama, the stress/
You get in the line of fire we get the big ass checks/
You gettin your choice of pimp/
Make your choice and fall in/
This is hoe stroll B I, take that cock in your behind, Beatch/
Hit the streets and perform for us/
Hold hard and bring it on to us/
I let you sip cups of Army, get a Mercedes/
And kick back and let you pay me, my Mack is crazy/
I leave the, knife and fist fight filled with glamour/
Yeah, take a picture with this platinum-plated sledgehammer/
We over-do it add the fire and explosion to it/
We're sow confusion/
We run rap music/
MTV, is runnin this rap shit/
Viacom is runnin this rap shit/
AOL and Time Warner runnin this rap shit/
We poke out our asses for a chance to cash in/
Cocaine, is runnin this rap shit/
Hennessey, is runnin this rap shit/
Quasi-homosexuals is runnin this rap shit/"

Despite that, The New Danger was a bit underwhelming, and the same could be said for his 2006 album, the sloppy and a bit frantic True Magic, which seemed like an album released just to get away from the industry. Mos would release the album without a true cover or any booklet, opting to just release the album with a CD and a case. It was a solid effort, but honestly, it just felt lifeless when you listen to it aside from a few tracks like "Fake Bonanza", "Crime And Medicine", "There Is A Way", and my favorite "U R The One". The album boasts majority of the production from Minnesota and Preservation, who actually provide some solid sounds for the album. His final official album, the 2009 release The Ecstatic felt like a return to form and was his best project since Black On Both Sides. It was probably a top 3 album in 2009, and honestly, it might be the best. If anything, Mos went out on top, because The Ecstatic is a blend of everything we love about his work but with more of an international appeal. Mos made music that appealed to the jazz crowd, the Afrobeat crowd, even the eurodance crowd without losing any quality or integrity. My favorite tracks are "History", the Blackstar reunion, as well as the Madlib produced "Auditorium" and Georgia Anne Muldrow featured "Roses". The Ecstatic doesn't have verses that stick out like the first two projects Mos was involved in, but it has a lot of great music and cohesion, which lacked from the previous two albums he released.

Mos would sign to G.O.O.D. Music in 2010, but behind the scenes issues would force him to retire off and on. While no one knows where or not we'll ever get another Mos Def album (or Yasiin Bey, as he's called now), what we do know is that Mos is a hip hop legend, one that never reached his full potential catalog wise. Still, with two classics under his belt in the Blackstar album and Black On Both Sides, along with a great album in The Ecstatic, we should hear Mos Def mentioned in the greatest MC talks more often.



  1. Note that in his song "The Rape Over", it talks about "Some tall Israeli is runnin' this Rap shit." That would be Lyon Cohen. He talks about rappers being told to take a cock in the behind. Lyon Cohen signed a ton of major rap acts, but many accuse him of taking most of the money. He's now head of YouTube Music.


Post a Comment

Popular Posts