Thursday, June 5, 2008

Mos Def - The New Danger

Mos Def - The New Danger
by Dan Weiss

If I’ve observed it correctly, the rule is that rap-rock only sucks when the rap is conceived by a rocker first, because rap is harder to emulate than rock. Say what you will about Ice-T’s Body Count, but they sounded closer to what a rock fan would listen to in 1991 than what Fred Durst (Method Man collab aside) presumed rap fans would tolerate in 1999. The only two (white) rap-rock bands everyone can agree on are Rage Against the Machine and the Beastie Boys, because neither (thankfully) tried to sing. They were strictly rappers with rock backup. And as such, they were free to explore artificial environments like a rapper does, moving from siren sounds here to a Hendrix quote there to faux-harmonica or what have you.

And then look at the history of rock conceived by rappers: Jay-Z on “99 Problems” (or practically duetting with Jim Morrison on “Takeover”). Nas and his dad on “Bridging the Gap.” Public Enemy on Anthrax (or better, over Slayer’s “Angel of Death” on “She Watch Channel Zero”). Run-DMC on “My Sharona.” A few flimsy ones come to mind—Busta Rhymes remaking “Iron Man” with Ozzy himself, Diddy (then Daddy) lifting Zep and Bowie wholesale. But let’s be honest…Beanie Sigel’s hostile “War Pigs” flip last year plugged the Sabbath gap, “Been Around the World” is an okay song for a guy who’s not much of a rapper to begin with, and the idea of rap-rock is still the coolest thing ever.

I think. It’s hard to tell whether people are getting their Dickies in a bunch over the real problems like the inevitable valleys of riff-to-riff songwriting or if the crunch itself embarrasses them. But I have my theories: The New Danger embarrassed people, and The New Danger is great. I like to chalk it up to reverse rockism; Danger came out in a particularly unfashionable year for alpha male slab-guitars, the one when Franz Ferdinand and Modest Mouse and Scissor Sisters scored hits with needlepoint guitar and disco rhythms. You’d think considering who won the election that year that Mos Def’s sausage-fest lollapalooza would’ve made some fans. “Quasi-homosexuals are running this rap shit!” he complained.

That’s the worst remark on the CD so let’s start there. “The Rape Over” isn’t quite “Meet the ‘G’ that Killed Me,” so it’s annoying that he ruins a pretty ballsy (calls out Viacom!) one-minute rant fashioned over Jay-Z’s “Takeover” beat with just seconds to go. I listen to it the same way I do Common’s “circle of faggots” epithet on Like Water For Chocolate or “Meet the ‘G’ that Killed Me” itself, as a little pinch in the middle of a great experience to remind me that hip-hop needs better terminology for pussy targets (and “pussy” isn’t much more progressive…dudes get angrier about that one than calling them a “dick”—wonder why?).

The New Danger is worth the pinch. It gets slammed for its incoherence and lack of The Source-credible quotables and treated like a failed experiment, but these complaints are daft about the music. Would it have been possible for Dante Smith to have made a good rap-rock album in these critics’ eyes? What would it have sounded like? If you’re open to the possibility at all, you’d say it would sound like this. The beats on the strictly hip-hop ones, “Life is Real,” “Sunshine,” and the widescreen “Sex, Love & Money” are dead serious and the samples are sharp. The flute that snakes through the fog of war-dance percussion on the latter is worth the price alone. And the rock half, especially the scorching “Zimzallabim,” the threat-posing “Ghetto Rock,” and the black-and-blue speakeasy jam “Black Jack” split crunch and extended groove with the “underneath” sensibility that every member of Mos’ Black Jack Johnson band—a supergroup featuring Dr. Know of Bad Brains, P-Funk legend Bernie Worrell, and two Living Colour alumni—perfected during each of their respective heydays.

Mos is great at call-and-response mantras, something rarely mentioned as a suitable replacement for lax approach to lyrical content here; if he’s in a jam band, so be it: “Y-E-A” versus “Yeah yeah” and “Black Jack Johnson NYC/R-O-C-K-I-N-G,” would be enough, but the haunted torch soul of “The Beggar” lays down a deeper foundation for the bandleader to mess around with melismas on, and the result is great. Mos Def is actually a great musician (recheck his oddly pretty bridge to Kanye’s “Drunk and Hot Girls” last year), but people tend to go on auto-rampage towards rappers trying to branch out, and look, not every song is “Hailie’s Song.” This guy’s been singing since “Definition” and “Umi Says”…he’s never conceived music without natural side outlets, because he knows he can.

What does it all mean? With a scarf wrapped around his face on the cover like a surgical mask, I could argue that Smith spliced everything he knows into a mad-scientist mixtape for the damned, but that’s giving a confused guy too much credit (I will certainly not ride for the even more stillborn Tru3 Magic that seems to have been released on accident in 2006, with no artwork even, and since been eradicated entirely). The New Danger plays like a glorious and long-grooving accident, and more likely Smith spent five years trying to make a rock album and a rap album and got stuck halfway. With sounds—not songs—this rich and powerful, sometimes it’s okay to get jammed in the middle.

Dan Weiss is an editorial intern at CMJ and the editor-at-large of What Was It Anyway. He enjoys questionable lifestyle choices in Brooklyn and has written for Village Voice, Stylus, Cleveland Scene, Philadelphia Inquirer and Lost at Sea.



Blogger jayson said...

Not bad, Weiss...not bad!

The essay, that is. The album, of course, is terrible. :D

June 16, 2008 at 9:51 PM  
Blogger Onetokenblackguy said...

Nu uh uh. I agree to disagree with you Jayson. This is, indeed, a great album.

June 27, 2008 at 2:38 PM  

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