Monday, July 6, 2009

the ecstatic & rising down

For me, discovering a real high-quality hip hop album feels like finding a twenty dollar bill on the sidewalk. It doesn't happen nearly often enough as I wish it would, but when it does I want to throw a party. So I've been living it up lately, thoroughly enjoying both Mos Def's recent release The Ecstatic and The Roots' 2008 release Rising Down. Both are jammed with creative samples, thoughtful lyrics, and addictive beats. Ultimately, what I respect most about these guys is that they're consistently trying to convince their audience to face up to reality and initiate positive change. Of course, the origins of hip hop are themselves rooted in self-analysis of one's position and neighborhood, but since the late 80's far too much hip hop has chosen to instead promote fantasy and materialism, exploiting their audience instead of inspiring them. Sadly, hearing Mos Def or Black Thought rap about blacks killing themselves periodically sounds like a broken record - the very fact that this continues to be such a central issue in the hop hop community suggests that the problem is depressingly intractable. But at least these guys are reaching out to the youth with some kind of knowledge. If you consider the messages that young, disenfranchised black (and brown) men and women receive on a daily basis, you'd be hard pressed to hear the positive ones in the drowning miasma of advertising, debasement, and hate.

While nothing Mos Def produces from this point on will likely compare to his 1999 solo debut, Black on Both Sides, with The Ecstatic he at least shrugs off the disheartening mediocrity of The New Danger (2004) and True Magic (2006). It is a return to form. His rhyming and rapping are superlative. The album is characterized by a number of tracks that contain Middle Eastern themes and musical styles. On "Auditorium," the infamous Slick Rick joins him in a rap about life & times in the modern age, including our ongoing war in Iraq:

quiet storm vital form pen pushed it right across
mind is a vital force, high level right across
shoulders the lions raw voice is the siren
i swing round ring out and bring down the tyrant
shocked a small act could knock a giant lopsided
the world is so dangerous there's no need for fightin
suttins tryna hide like the struggle wont find em
and the sun bust through the clouds to clearly remind him
everywhere penthouse pavement and curb
cradle to the grave talk'll lead you on a shell
universal ghetto life holla black you know it well

As always, Mos Def is 100% positivity and I love him for it. The opening line of "Priority" might as well be his creed: "Top priority: peace before everything, God before anything, love before anything, real before everything, home before anyplace, shoot before anything, style and state radiate love power slay the hate."

"Quiet Dog Bite Hard" has such a slamming beat it deserves a YouTube link and a listen:

"Revelations" feels like it could have come right from Black on Both Sides, Mos Def quietly preaching black pride and humility to God on a thoroughly old-school track. And the producers and guest artists involved make an impressive list:

1. Supermagic (prod. by Oh No)
2. Twilight Speedball (prod. by Chad Hugo)
3. Auditorium (feat. Slick Rick) (prod. by Madlib)
4. Wahid (prod. by Madlib)
5. Priority (prod. by Preservation)
6. Quiet Dog (prod. by Preservation)
7. Life In Marvelous Times (prod. by Mr. Flash)
8. The Embassy (prod. by Mr. Flash)
9. No Hay Nada Mas (prod. by Preservation)
10. Pistola (prod. by Oh No)
11. Pretty Dancer (prod. by Madlib)
12. Workers Camp (prod. by Mr. Flash)
13. Revelations (prod. by Madlib)
14. Roses (feat. Georgia Anne Muldrow) (prod. by Georgia Anne Muldrow )
15. History (feat. Talib Kweli) (prod. by J Dilla)
16. Casa Bey (Arranged by Mos Def and Preservation)

Like Mos Def, The Roots have thankfully focused their prodigious talent on producing socially-conscious hip hop layered onto danceable beats. For whatever reason (most likely not enough listening), I didn't take to their 2006 release Game Theory, but look no further than Things Fall Apart (1999) and Phrenology (2002) for solid gateway albums into The Roots' universe. Rising Down is equal to the task. Feel free to ignore the somewhat disturbing, largely ironic "Birthday Girl" and indulge in the social criticism that defines the remainder of the album.

Just a sample, from "I will not apologize"

Yo, a revolution's what it's smelling like, it ain't going be televised
Governments is hellified, taking cake and selling pies
I ain't got a crust or crumb, to get some I'd be well obliged
Murder is comodified, felon for the second time
Never was I into chasing trouble I was followed by
Facing trouble with no alibi, had to swallow pride
Vilified, victimized, penalized, criticized
Ran into some people that's surprised I was still alive
Look into my daughter's eyes, wonder how can I provide
Got to get from A to B but how can I afford to drive?
Messed around, tried to get a job and wasn't qualified
Had to see a pal of mine, got to get the lightning rod
Now I'm in the black Impala looking for the dollar sign
Palms get the itching man I got to get the calamine
Before I fall behind, guess the grind will be my 9 to 5
I will not be conquered by, I will not apologize

Mos Def joins on the title track to help introduce the album, just so you know what kind of journey this thing will take you on. Not every track is a killer but The Roots are always worth a close listen.

1. The Pow Wow (Intro)
2. Rising Down
3. Get Busy
4. @ 15
5. 75 Bars (Reconstruction)
6. (Up Theme) Becoming Unwritten
7. Criminal
8. I Will Not Apologize
9. I Can’t Help It
10. Singing Man
11. (Up Theme) Unwritten
12. Lost Desire
13. The Show
14. Rising Up
15. Birthday Girl

1 comment:

  1. haven't checked this out yet, but Mos has a collection bunch of mostly previously unreleased studio tracks (a lot of collabos w/ Talib, Roots, etc.) on "We Are Hip-Hop - You, Me Everybody". worth checking out if you never got them.

    but i agree, the New Danger was mediocre at best. we'll now refer to it as his "Cadillac Era".