Thoughts on Mos Def’s “The Ecstatic”

It’s been almost a year since Mos Def released his latest solo album “The Ecstatic” – a year in which a lot of other records have hit the market. Twelve months in which many new artists have appeared on the scene. 365 days in which the music industry has gone further down the drain. But unlike many other productions that are here today and gone tomorrow, Mos Def’s work still remains worth talking about.

How is it that this album, that on first sight seems much less easily accessible than Mos Def’s previous releases, became a critics favorite, earned the artist a Grammy nomination, entered the US Charts #9 and was named one of the most important albums of 2009 by Rolling Stone?

To answer this question, one has to take a closer look at the controversy that evolved around the highly underrated album “True Magic”, that was released on Geffen Records in 2006.

After the release date of the album had been changed innumerable times and  strong tensions between the label management and the artist had grown, the album was finally released in a plain box, with no cover, no booklet, and very limited artwork printed on the CD and vinyl. It also contained the controversial “Katrina Clap”, which earned Mos Def an arrest while doing an impromptu performance of the song outside the VMAs in 2006. These moves were interpreted by many as a big fuck you in the face of Jimmy Iovine, chairman of Geffen Records, especially since it was the last record that legally bound Mos Def to the label.

Now, as a result of all this, “The Ecstatic” takes these developments one step further and seems to go against anything that the politics of major labels represent.

First off, one wonders why Mos Def didn’t simply release his album on Stones Throw Records, because 7 of the 16 songs on the album were produced by producers who are currently signed to the LA label. Four songs were contributed by Madlib, two songs by Oh No and one song by Georgia Anne Muldrow.

It also came as a surprise that some of the instrumentals on the album had already been released on other records of the beatmakers. The instrumental of “Auditorium” could already be heard on Madlib’s 2007 release “Beat Konducta Volume 3&4 – Beat Konducta in India” and was then titled “Movie Finale”. The instrumental  of “Supermagic” was released on Oh No’s record “Dr. No’s Oxperiment” as “Heavy”, the sounds of “Revelations” could be found on the 2008 Madvillain Album “Madvillainy 2 – The Madlib Remixes” under the title “Savage Beast” and “Life in Marvelous Times” uses the same beat that Mr. Flash had produced for his collaboration with french HipHop crew TTC, called “Champions”.

This re-use of beats is really not a common technique in hip hop, unlike, for example, in dancehall, where many different MCs can spit over one rhythm, so the use of the instrumentals caused some astonishment, both positive and negative, amongst Mos Def’s fans.

But the most surprising thing about “The Ecstatic” is that none of the songs on the record really seem to have any serious hit potential. Sure enough, three singles were released – “Life in Marvelous Times”, “Casa Bey” and “Quiet Dog” – but none of them entered the charts.

In a time where iTunes exclusives have become more important as a source of income for musicians than the sales of the actual record ,and where the attention span of the average customer seems to have shrunk to a mere three minutes, it seems like a big risk for any record label to release an album that does not immediately reward the listener and that, on the contrary, demands something from her or him.

The whole album seems a lot like one big jam session, like a product of improvisation. It really feels like a record, that needs to be listened to and seen as a whole, as an entity. And while one could argue that most of the tracks on the record are pretty short, and are thus made for exactly the before mentioned type of listener, they really need to be understood as little episodes that are being fused together by clever use of ingenious skits, smart lyrics and the order of the songs to form one continuous piece, an artistic method also used in the 2007 Charles Burnett movie “Killer of Sheep”, of which a shot of a scene got chosen for the album cover.

All these steps seems especially surprising, considering that Downtown Music, Mos Def’s current label, is far from an independent label (it is home to many other big names, such as Amanda Blank, Gnarls Barkley, Justice and French First Lady Carla Bruni) and that none of the album’s singles have been released in physical form.

But in this truest core of the album lies what makes it special and, as some might argue, what makes it somehow old fashioned.

And, of course, this improvised character of the album means that it also has it’s weak moments.

For example “History”, the Black Star reunion track with Talib Kweli, is much too short and Kwelis line “I’m down with the crew, like Mussolini in Italy” is just unbearable and idiotic. Also the chorus lines of “Flowers”, sung by Georgia Anne Muldrow, are terribly cheesy and one really has to wonder why Mos Def chose Slick Rick as a feature partner for the track “Auditorium”, because you’d really need a lot of fantasy to see any connection between the parts of the two rappers. Maybe Mos simply is a big fan of the Ruler, but it seems that there was no lyrical exchange whatsoever going on between the two of them.

But even if these imperfections cannot be denied, they only contribute, on the artist’s side, to the whole process of formation of the album and, on the listener’s side, to the process of appreciation of Mos Def’s work.

“The Ecstatic” has certainly conserved some of its raw sides and simply does not want to be as sleek and perfect as any album you’d expect to be dropped by a major record label. It is a strong statement about what is still possible in today’s music industry for artists that have not lost their integrity and that is one of the reasons this album is so appealing.

“The Ecstatic” marks a new start for this exceptional musician called Mos Def – a new start into a future that hopefully holds a lot more great records and that every fan can feel ecstatic about.

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