On "Fear Not of Man," the intro cut to his first solo full-length, rapper Mos Def reflects on the state of hip-hop as we enter the 21st century: "People be asking me all the time, 'Yo, Mos, what's getting ready to happen with hip-hop?' Whatever's happening with us, if we smoked out, hip-hop is going to be smoked out. If we doing alright, hip-hop is going to be doing alright."
If anyone is poised to elevate the state of hip-hop and ensure its survival, it might well be this multitalented Brooklyn-raised artist, who not only raps, but also sings and plays keyboards, bass and percussion. The new disc, which follows up on his acclaimed 1998 Rawkus collaboration, Mos Def and Talib Kweli Are Black Star, celebrates black pride and questions how we will approach living in the new millennium. Mos doesn't just spit rhymes; he glides over beats and the competition like Clyde "the Glide" Drexler used to soar past and over opponents on the basketball court. Mos puts consciousness back into black music the way Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye did once they broke away from the lyrical constraints of Berry Gordy's Motown hit factory. For example, the meditative "Umi Says" has a chorus that calls for "all black people to be free," which Mos repeatedly responds to by singing, "Shine your light for all the world to see." This is laid on top of a mellow Seventies jazzy groove, which gives it an incense-and-glow-in-the-dark-felt-poster vibe. On "Rock and Roll," which opens up with Mos singing the line "Makes me wanna holler," from the Marvin Gaye classic "Inner City Blues," the rapper takes on the white kings of rock and roll, past and present, who imitate black musical forms: "Elvis Presley ain't got no soul, Little Richard is rock and roll/You may dig on the Rolling Stones, but they ain't come up with that shit on they own." Q-Tip joins up with Mos on the funky "Mr. Nigga," a track that bemoans the mistreatment blacks often experience from whites while traveling on airplanes, among other racial-tinged grievances. To help refine his sound, Mos enlisted a number of top-name producers and musicians. Psycho Les from the Beatnuts adds some Orwelladome beats to the chilling "New World Water." Gang Starr's DJ Premier comes through on the track "Mathematics," in which Mos shouts out incisive couplets like "The white unemployment line is nearly more than triple for black/So the front liners got the gun on your back, bubblin' crack."
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Those who constantly complain about the sorry state of MCs might do well to check out this disc -- arguably one of this year's best releases from a label that's establishing itself as one of the leaders in underground hip-hop. Black on Both Sides is a solid release from a rapper who actually has something to say.