Single Alert!

November 7, 2008 at 5:58 pm (Music)

Mos Def “Life in Marvelous Times”

This is a single released just this Tuesday on iTunes. I’d suggest checking it out before buying it.

I write what I’m about to write because I used to like Mos Def, I really did, but he’s singlehandedly responsible for the most disappointing moments in Hip Hop in the past five years. Black Star promised us an MC with an intense vocal delivery propelled by political expediency, and his solo debut Black on Both Sides delivered a hip hop album as comfortable with a croon as rapping. It was pretty fresh, both from its increased social consciousness and rapid fire verses.

And then time passed. Five whole years before another full length from the mystic master. 1999 became 2004. Would we be dazzled by the vitality he throws into his beats, would our skin quiver from his intense imagery and social consciousness?

It wasn’t to be. We were baffled by reckless experimentation which sheltered a couple moments of transcendent hip hop (the Timbaland produced “Sex, Love, and Money,” has an infectious chant made even more communicable with seedy hip hop production of timpani and brass, and the Kanye West produced “Sunshine” has Mos’ swagger materializing out of quietness, weightless in its light), but the entire album was uneven in its dedication to several styles executed poorly. By trying to replicate a multitude of different genres, and then use them as a vehicle to promote his social consciousness, most of them fell flat without hooks. He was trying too, too hard for his songs to have meaning, when before he could tell a story without imposing its message if he wanted.

Three years passed along with perfunctory guest appearances before his third solo album, True Magic, was released with label conflict and absolutely no supplementary material besides the disc itself. That’s right, if you were to buy the album, you got a cheap, clear plastic case with a dual toned album. It actually looks like this:

Plus it doesn’t even have a tracklist. When I bought it, I thought it was a cheap CD-R copy. But it wasn’t. And its contents were even more of a disappointment.

Instead of experimental disappointments that at least let us know Mos was trying, like “Freaky Black Greetings”, where a metal guitar has freaky black greetings uttered in between the rocky riffs, we get terrible underwritten dreck like “Dollar Day (Surprise Surprise)”; a top 40 radio hip hop hit’s beat (from two years ago!) was taken to launch an almost crying tirade regarding Hurricane Katrina. Instead of expanding his sound beyond its limits, he shrunk its boundaries. The entire album oscillates between incomprehensible to frustrating with few moments of redemption. Pitchfork’s review of True Magic encapsulates the question his new album posed to his audience. Will this be the end of a chapter or a book?

Judging by his new single, the only thing he’s released in the past year besides some uninspired guest spots, True Magic was no end. He still hasn’t given up on sloppy concepts delivered with excitement and intensity. His greatest aspect has always been his voice, the way it can bend from low, latticework chants into tremendous vocal heights capable of sustaining a note with desperation and urgency for well over four measures. The worst aspect has come to be what his voice is actually saying. “Life in Marvelous Times” does little to reverse the trend.

The hook involves sarcasm. “We Live in Marvelous Times,” is described as having technology and the modern political times as being not very good, but then he gets to sing, with such rage, in the refrain, that, yes, we are living in modern times. Along with Kanye West, Mos was involved in a song with a similarly clever bait-and-switch hook with “Drunk and Hot Girls.”

It seems to me that if you think such a grand, political statement is a good idea for a song (it isn’t: it might be a good vehicle for social change but it rarely makes a good song), clothing the ultimate message in sarcasm is a bad idea. Mark Antony was able to call Brutus an honorable man after Caesar’s death because the crowd actually believed it, and he used it to persuade the plebians that, no, revenge would have to be bloodily taken.

Few people who look at things politically would say we are in marvelous times. Besides normal electoral turmoil/partisan conflict, we are a nation in a foreign war right now with banking economic troubles. It’s only a marvelous time if you’re reading comic books, because so many cool ones are coming out right now! And this is besides the question: what does he have us do with the hate all this sarcasm brings up? Do we go into the streets and murder Cicero the poet? Should we funnel our rage against the system?

Mos doesn’t know. He gives his audience hate but never directs it towards the cause of hate. I’m guessing, because it’s being released on election day, that it means we’re supposed to angrily slam down a ballot cast with righteousness. As art, this is terrible, but as a speech, this is much worse. Political speeches are often about selling the public your proposal to saving what afflicts them. This song just heaps on the pain without offering a palliative.

Not that you’d actually be able to discern this message from the song alone. The beat has loud, tripping synths bouncing loudly, framed by loud, Fruity Loops Percussion (Trust me, I use Fruity Loops to make music, and I could recreate every sound besides the brass given a half hour. It’s Solja Boy Bad.), and even on top of all this loud movement there shout brass instruments.

It may just be me, but if you’re broadcasting a loud, political message, you should probably tone the beats down and the lyrics up. Politicians don’t give speeches and expect attention from their audience when music competes with them.

But even if this song isn’t trying to give yet another Mos Def moment of political rallying full of anger and free of method, it’s terrible to just listen to. The beat keeps repeating, forever and ever droning its loudness. It does sound like someone finally made crunk, lil jon styled beats actually bang instead of just hope the audience is drinking too much to realize it’s actually tame (listen for the human shouts every so often- I think this would be a good crunk beat), but do we actually need anything like this, at all? Do we need another lame attempt at politicizing that gets swallowed up in its musical aspects, do we need another crunk beat in modern, heck, any hip hop?

Mos, please tell me you aren’t content with this, and that your new album will have an actual return to form instead of this slapdash shit. Please tell me that the gifted storyteller from “Ms. Fat Booty” and impressive battle rapper from “Definition” isn’t dead yet.

Judging by this, I’m not very confident he’ll be able to surpass my expectations. But I really, really want him to. At least this one has packaging.

***

In almost unrelated news, this song with Mos Def is really cool.

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1 Comment

  1. Disclaimer: I’m a hip hop head who uses samples for his beats « Psychopomp & Circumstance said,

    […] away from what makes hip hop so awesome and adopt more respected song forms (and why have all my former idols have been disappointing me lately!?!). First, he stopped sampling nearly as much and started […]

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