Posts Tagged ‘Mos Def’

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Gorillaz – Plastic Beach

March 12, 2010

Gorillaz - Plastic Beach

Back in 2001, I experienced the first Gorillaz album in the way that all parties involved may have found ideal: with absolutely no context. I was eleven, and I hadn’t heard of Damon Albarn, Dan the Automator or Del tha Funkee Homosapien. Just about the only thing I knew about Gorillaz was that they weren’t real, but I still struggled to put animated faces to voices, sounds to instruments and some kind of method to the madness. The album was to me the most alien thing I had ever heard, an amalgamation of rock, pop, punk, hip hop, electronic, dub and world music. Nothing could have prepared me for it.

Once again, I was eleven, and mostly used to listening to pop radio, whatever that might have been at the time. Everything changed for me after Gorillaz. “Re-Hash” became my Summer anthem and “Que Pasa Contigo” melted the winter freeze. I stared at my crappy stereo in confusion and wonder during “Sound Check (Gravity),” I daydreamed to “Man Research,” and I nearly shit my pants when I first heard “Left Hand Suzuki Method” (For an idea of exactly how naive I was, I thought the bong hit sample at the beginning was the opening of a can of soda). It’s even still a bit unsettling for me to hear the album now, if only because of my history with it. In a world of its own and on its own terms, it pushed its own boundaries incredibly far, and I’ll always love it.

Gorillaz

By the time I was fourteen, I was in high school and had begun to branch out a bit. I listened to Nirvana and the Smashing Pumpkins, and my Led Zeppelin t-shirts were starting to develop pit stains. I anticipated the release of Demon Days for months, and when it finally came out I bought it in Best Buy (what seems even for now to be a relatively dated practice). A dark, brooding pop album, it frustrated me as much as it entertained. There were familiar elements, but mostly it was new and uncomfortable, for me an early exploration into dirty, dark hip hop and experimental pop music and a collection of ideas and styles just as diverse as those on the self titled album. Even more strange names were credited in the liner notes, most of which I had not heard of, but I came to associate Danger Mouse with this kind of an edgy, diverse sound. He did Demon Days well, and I wondered for years how it could be followed.

Demon Days

And now, with the release of Gorillaz’s third studio LP, Plastic Beach, I can reasonably expect not just an album of music, but an experience. Of course, the band has relaunched their website and the first of no doubt many music videos. Various release versions of Plastic Beach contain storyboards, videos and other exclusive content, and a story is being slowly spun to outline the virtual band’s current state. In short: All of the world’s trash and pieces of its history have floated to the middle of the Indian Ocean to form a massive artificial island known as The Plastic Beach. Gorillaz, consisting of singer 2D, bassist Murdoc, guitarist Noodle and drummer Russel, have now made it their home and production studio, where they have crafted a new concept album that deals with, among other issues, pirates, consumerism and modern living. It is a big production to keep track of, but it is important to zone in on what is really the vital event here, the release of a new Gorillaz album.

I concede that I was expecting something much different than what I got from Plastic Beach, perhaps something much more sinister, in the vein of the demented Demon Days, but in fact Plastic Beach is far more accessible than either of Gorillaz’s previous studio LPs, smash hits included. Damon Albarn has even said it is the poppiest thing he has ever been involved with; this may be a stretch, but it is easy to see where he is coming from. The album is bejeweled with orchestral strings, melodious pop hooks and whimsical electronic textures. The majority of the victory achieved in Plastic Beach can be attributed to Albarn himself and his penchant for pop songcraft. Many of the album’s best songs are ones that feature him exclusively, and he handles the vast majority of the production work on the album, choosing not to collaborate with a guest producer such as Dan the Automator or Danger Mouse.

But the Gorillaz camp still features an ever revolving cast of guest collaborators, even if it’s most distinguishable feature is its now well established groundwork. De La Soul once again provides playful rhyming and Mos Def makes two appearances: The freestyle massacre “Sweepstakes” and the lead single “Stylo.” “Stylo” doesn’t quite get off the ground and flying like prior Gorillaz hits, but it’s probably much more compelling, featuring a mysterious melody, great work from Mos Def to coincide with his recent comeback and a soaring vocal part from the great jack-of-all-trades Bobby Womack.

Stylo

But the more obscure guest spots are perhaps even more effective. Grime rappers Bashy and Kano kill it on the dual-spirited “White Flag,” the Lebanese National Orchestra for Oriental Arabic Music provides melodic strings on the same track and Little Dragon’s Yukimi Nagano sings wonderfully on two of the album’s best songs, “Empire Ants” and “To Binge.” The album seems to hit nirvana on the former, which morphs from gentle seaside guitar strumming into rhythmic ambient techno bliss, while the latter provides a longing, romantic melody, and is the most real this unreal band has ever been. Some of the album’s other guest artists, particularly Snoop Dogg and Lou Reed, seem like novelty inclusions, but they play their parts well and only further highlight the fact that since the beginning, the Gorillaz project has been a whole hell of a lot of fun.

And so we ask, if Damon Albarn wants his projects to feature prominent alt-rappers alongside indie heroes, why not? Behind an animated facade, he can do just about anything without it seeming awkward, and we give his and Jamie Hewlett’s characters the benefit of the doubt, perhaps more than he himself. This accounts for how many curveballs Plastic Beach throws, and how often they hit the mark. From front to back, just about every track here features unexpected elements. The professional orchestrations on “White Flag” and “Cloud of Unknowing” are idiosyncratic but genuinely charming, Mark E. Smith and Lou Reed get silly, and the closing “Pirate Jet” is about the most understated ending imaginable for such a big-thinking album. We trust all these elements because they earn our respect legitimately and are all around pleasures on their own terms.

Which isn’t to say that Plastic Beach as a whole doesn’t deal with some pretty poignant issues, most prominently undercurrents involving consumer culture. This is nothing terribly new for Gorillaz, who have always had the idea of commercialism at their hearts. By the time Plastic Beach is done with its chart assault, Gorillaz will almost certainly have sold over twenty million albums. It’s hard to delegitimize that kind of success, especially now when being a Gorillaz alumni yields much greater profit than simple street cred; it results in incredible rewards and songs that a lot of people like myself hold dear for years and years. Certainly this will be the case with Plastic Beach as well, though it reaches that ends by a much different means. It’s worth exploring why, and we might end up doing that until the next Gorillaz LP, but for now this album is already well on its way to building another legacy.

Gorillaz

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Mos Def – The Ecstatic

July 17, 2009
Mos Def - The Ecstatic

Mos Def - The Ecstatic

I can confidently say that Mos Def has delivered to me both some of the best hip hop performances I have ever heard as well as some of the worst. Of course the most obvious accomplishment in his career may be the Rawkus Records classic collaboration with Talib Kweli, Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star, which steered hip hop into a new direction in the late ’90s and is widely considered one of the genre’s best albums from the decade. Certainly it put both artists on the map and is an excellent release, but even considering how much it impressed me, Mos Def’s solo debut Black on Both Sides topped it, at least for me. It is one of my personal favorite hip hop albums, and I believe every word of it front to back, even at the parts which many people argue are overly philosophical. I always give him the benefit of the doubt on that album even if I don’t necessarily agree with him, if nothing else because it’s loaded with classic tracks and Mos’s flow is unmatchable.

How, then, could the genre hopping The New Danger possibly have come from the same person? Mos Def at least makes a sensible attempt to expand his repertoire to multiple genres in the 2004 album, namely rock, blues and R&B, and has some memorable moments. But unfortunately his ambition and few highlights aren’t enough to stop it from being one of the most boring album’s I’ve ever heard. Whenever I try to give it another chance, I’m always fighting sleep. But at least The New Danger made it sound like Mos was trying, a luxury we didn’t get with 2006’s True Magic, which saw Mos Def making an effort to be politically conscious once again on a few tracks, yes, but was an all around terrible album which, according to pretty convincing evidence (lack of cover art, lack of advertisement, lack of quality), might have only been made in the first place to fulfill any final obligations with Geffen Records.

And if you’ve talked to me about live music within the past four months, you’ve probably heard me curse Mos Def more than once. I have been frequently citing his February 23rd show at the 9:30 Club as the worst I have ever seen, not in the slightest because we had to wait outside in the bitter cold for two hours before he started the show three hours late (his plane was late and he apologized profusely, shit happens), but simply because it was one of the most boring experiences I’ve ever had. I don’t know what it was exactly. His tired flow? His slow, monotone delivery? The random yelling? The not that funny arguments with his DJs? The lack of anything happening most of the time? Probably the most interesting thing about the show was that the film Little Fugitive was projected on the back screen in it’s entirety for the whole thing. I found myself watching that movie, even without sound, more than I watched Mos. In the cab afterwards when I voiced my opinion that I hated the show, I was told “that’s just what hip hop shows are like,” to which I replied “then hip hop shows are fucking boring.” Looking back I know that statement just can’t be true, and I’ve got a couple gigs lined up that will hopefully prove it wrong. But my frustration says something about how utterly disappointed that show made me.

At that point in time, it seemed like the final nail in Mos Def’s coffin was pounded in. But then his new album The Ecstatic pops up on the radar and I find myself too interested to keep myself away, maybe because I want to see if what I experienced at the show was honestly the new Mos Def, or perhaps the exposure to those two terrible prior albums developed into some kind of musical masochism.

And upon turning on the CD, I was more than a little put off by what occurred to me were similarities with the aforementioned albums. In fact, the lead off track “Supermagic” is practically a microcosm for what unfurls throughout the rest of the album. It starts off with Mos Def whispering the Islamic Basmala before all else, which is what he had done on each solo release up to now, so we know already that it is in fact a Mos Def album and he is going to stick to his guns in at least one way. The next thing we hear, however, might indicate some kind of change back to the ways of his earlier conscious hip hop recordings; Mos first samples a Malcolm X speech, immediately after plunging into a vocal sample of Turkish singer Selda Bagcan as the primary focus of the songs chorus, and then featuring a front-and-center lead guitar riff and rock drums, not unlike The New Danger‘s “Freaky Black Greetings.” Within the first thirty seconds of the album, Mos pulls a bunch of ballsy, unexpected stuff out of his pockets, and I was more than surprised. These eclectic moments come to define the rest of the album’s world music influences.

Which is of course not a new concept for hip hop. Hip hop artists have been exploring different cultures since My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, and one of my favorite artists, the Sri Lankan Maya Arulpragasam (M.I.A.), has been pioneering her eclectic world hip hop for several years. But what hits hardest about M.I.A. is that her music screams out for cultures that don’t have voices because they are embroiled with internal problems. Production-wise, The Ecstatic sees Mos Def and company reaching quite close to the quality and eclecticism of the likes of M.I.A., Diplo and Switch. Mos get’s some big names to contribute tracks to the album, namely Madlib (mostly contributing beats from his Beat Konducta In India albums), Preservation (who is actually on his game for one time in Mos Def’s discography), Oh No, and even a return from The Neptunes (who were responsible for one of the very few worthwhile tracks on True Magic). A lot of really talented people clearly helped to put this album together.

Consequently, the music on The Ecstatic is pretty excellent, and memorable tunes and beats are in no small measure. This is the album’s most standout feature, and looks back to the impeccable production of Black on Both Sides, which always sounded like really classy shit. But in terms of the work of Mos Def himself as a lyricist and vocalist (what made us interested in him in the first place), the cultural explorations on The Ecstatic seem superficial by comparison. Of course, it’s not like every rapper has to be a vanguard like Arulpragasam, but even when we compare The Ecstatic to Mos Def’s best work, he lyrically falls flat. Is he still classy shit? Perhaps, but I get this unshakable image in my head while listening to the “The Embassy,” with its rumbling belly dancing music, of Mos Def in a white suit wining and dining when he sings “High status, intrigue and mystery.” It’s classy, but I know for a fact that just isn’t how embassies work.

With that said, moments of naivete like these aren’t few. The Ecstatic is lyrically quite lopsided. One moment Mos says something that genuinely surprises us and we listen intently, only to hear him indulge in the shameless self-promotion that was exactly what he strived to remove not just himself, but the entire hip hop industry away from on Black Star and Black on Both Sides. The most memorable instance of this would be on the otherwise great “Twilite Speedball.” “Yeah, no / It’s okay you can have it your way / It ain’t all good, but baby I’m cool! / Feelin’ great, feelin’ good, how are you?” To be honest, the vast majority of the album shows Mos Def doing what he’s been doing for his past few albums: yelling random words (I’m getting really sick of this “Boogeyman!” shit), semi-singing, and playing himself up.

But then on the moments you would least expect him to, Mos manages to really shine bright. The first track that comes to mind is “No Hay Nada Mas.” On paper, a song with only light guitar strumming, a non-intrusive backbeat and Mos Def  speaking in monotone Spanish sounds like worse idea ever, bad enough to be a New Danger b-side, but it works. And I say this despite the fact that I don’t speak Spanish. Perhaps this means that his musicality wins out again now, ten years later, and I am once again able to suspend disbelief, for at least a moment. But what impresses me just as much as the nice production work on the song is the fact that Mos actually cares enough to attempt to speak a song in Spanish (although my knowledge about his proficiency is nonexistent. This is not the only time when he really shows his chops as a vocalist. It would be ridiculous not to mention “History,” the duet with Talib Kweli over a J Dilla beat, where both lyricists show that they can still be just as strong and intelligent as they were on Mos Def and Talib Kweli are Black Star. Also, “Quiet Dog” and “Casa Bey,” while still not possessing the lyrical excellence of earlier works, are still superior in flow.

The cover of the album really says it all. It does not feature Mos Def, like every other album the man has released does, but instead a still frame from the 1977 film Killer of Sheep which due to copyright reasons was not released until 2007. But while that isn’t him, it’s hard not to see it as him, an artist who once seemed lost himself. What The Ecstatic does more than anything is show Mos Def actually trying again. The fact that I got all the way through this album at all is a victory in it of itself, not to mention that I actually came back to it more than five times and actually remember pretty much all of it, not just musically but also lyrically, despite it’s shortcomings.  The Ecstatic is, as a Mos Def album, neither great nor bad, making it something the likes of which we have never heard before or know how to deal with, and throughout the album he often trails behind and excels within the same track, sometimes at the same fucking time (the case of a lame rhyme over a really tight beat). If anything, the album only makes the man that much more of an utterly maddening artist. It seems like Mos Def actually really wants, needs to make this jump, and what’s killing me here, and maybe this makes The Ecstatic a narrow victory by means of sheer fascination, is that I have no idea whether he does or not.

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