This is a monthly feature where classic and cult albums are revisited and reassessed for the modern listener. The only rule is that it must be a critically acclaimed or cult record released before 2000.

Mos Def – ‘Black on Both Sides’ (Rawkus Records, 1999)


This month we return to the (hip-hop) arena with Mos Def’s ‘Black on Both Sides’, an album that carried forth hip-hop’s legacy of social consciousness heralded by Gang Starr, Public Enemy and the Native Tongues collective and while it acknowledges its predecessors it is no mere retread. Ahead of the curve by half a decade ‘Black on Both Sides’’ organic soul-inflected sound points to the future of hip-hop, predating the style that Kanye West would make popular in 2004, and Jay Dilla’s involvement in the album’s production (though none of his tracks made the final cut) is significant to its sound and style, which overshadowed his own work until his untimely death in February 2006.

Though ‘Black on Both Sides’ features DJ Premier, Ali Shaheed Muhammad (A Tribe Called Quest), Ayatollah, Psycho Les (The Beatnuts), Diamond D, 88 Keys and contributions from jazz legend Weldon Irvine it is, compared to most hip-hop albums, an artist-focused release with Mos Def producing ‘Fear Not of Men’, co-producing ‘Umi Says’, ‘Brooklyn’ and ‘May-December’, providing additional production on ‘Hip Hop’, ‘Rock N Roll’, ‘Climb’ and ‘Mr. Nigga’ and contributing bass guitar on four tracks, percussion on two and keyboards, congas, sung vocals and drums elsewhere. Samples are expertly woven into the live instrumentation so there is no sign of where one begins and the other ends. Whether they be Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat, David Axelrod’s jazz stylings, Eric B and Rakim classics, obscure Aretha Franklin a cappellas or James Brown’s ‘Funky Drummer’ all are manipulated and shaped into the songs, creating a unified work. This and Mos Def’s level of involvement supplies a naturally expressive feel and raises the album above the imitations that followed, the most apparent being Kanye West’s appropriation. West also uses live instrumentation and sings and has made a point of speaking of his dedication to learning and improving his musical skills, particularly the piano in interviews. During the releases of his quartet of college themed albums West was praised for creating a new style of hip-hop but in retrospect this acclaim appears to be due to press hyperbole than truth. It is arguable that Kanye West, who, like Mos Def, inspired a wave of impersonators, created a similar sound to the one pioneered on ‘Black on Both Sides’ and by pitching his soul samples and adding his story it was endowed with critical and commercial successful.

Pervading throughout its sound and aesthetic ‘soulful’ is a key adjective for ‘Black on Both Sides’. ‘Fear Not of Men’ sees Mos Def philosophising about the state of hip-hop and society and in the final verse he discusses his religious beliefs while praising Allah. He continues this theme with a tribute to his mother ‘Umi Says’ and musing on death on ‘Mathematics’ (“Yo it is 6 Million Ways to Die from the seven deadly thrills/Eight-year olds gettin’ found with 9 mills”). It is as if his Islamic faith allows him to objectively deal with issues even when discussing controversial subjects: economics ‘New World Water’ and race ‘Mr. Nigga’ (“Some folks get on a plane go as 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 face is smuggle weight in they cases/Bags inspected, now we arrested”). He sees no colour or nationalities and the human race is all one. Most rappers pre and post Mos Def have not managed to achieve or maintain this balance, often falling into the trap of creating a one-sided or overly aggressive stance to make a point and not wanting to be viewed as unable to hold his/her own. The wordy style he has been criticised for is integral to his individuality and the album. The complex subject matter of death, religion, race and politics needs an expansive lyrical approach yet such is his skill the verses never seem overcrowded.

Since its release the album’s influence on socially conscious hip-hop has been telling. In addition to Kanye West’s appropriation and expansion on Mos Def’s template, it led to greater success for his Black Star collaborator Talib Kweli and Kweli’s work with Mablib has garnered critical praise. Artists such as Wale, Lupe Fiasco and Kid Cudi have clearly been influenced by Mos Def and though not all of them have achieved similar commercial or critical acclaim they are evidence of Mos Def’s legacy and his ability to help sustain a thriving underground hip-hop scene.

Listen to the album on Grooveshark

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