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Mos Def’s The Ecstatic

This blog is the fifteenth installment of UIC Radio’s Black History Month series profiling and celebrating the work of Black artists throughout the month of February. To read the previous entry in this series, click here! For more information regarding Black History Month at UIC and the many upcoming events planned over the next several weeks, visit the Black History Month Student Planning Committee’s webpage here.

The year 2009 was a crossroads for Yasiin Bey, then known as Mos Def. He was five years removed from harsh backlash from his sophomore solo effort The New Danger, which in the eyes of many didn’t have the same lasting power as his masterpieces Black on Both Sides and Black Star. This drought of a substantial project (the community saw 2006’s True Magic as nothing more than a contractual fulfillment to free the rapper from Geffen Records) made many question Mos Def’s commitment to music, as his love for acting, the first skill a young Mos mastered, kept the artist busy with gigs on stage and the big screen.

But soon after signing with Downtown Records, Mos returned to the music scene with The Ecstatic, a record that quenched fans’ angst for more socially conscious lyricism and Def’s goal to continue to bring in different genres of music to fuel his artistic desire. Going through the notes of the album reveals a murderer’s row of legendary producers: Chad Hugo (frustratingly attributed to The Neptunes), Oh No, Mr. Flash, Preservation, Madlib, Mos Def himself, and the GOAT, J Dilla. Together, these power minds form a multicultural record that fuses the conscious thoughts of Brooklyn with distinct sounds from across the globe. 

Front Cover of The Ecstatic, a red-tinted still from Killer of Sheep by Charles Burnett.

Though not new territory for underground conscious rap, The Ecstatic stands out in the mainstream rap world for its immensely prevalent thoughts on international politics, especially towards the unjustified actions of western countries in the Middle East. The album makes use of characters to convey the dialogue around a wartime lifestyle. “The Embassy,” for example, features a pre-song skit about a pilot encompassing American gun culture by calming passengers down about a terrorist attack by highlighting his arsenal of weapons on board. These themes are expressed across the project, especially on tracks “Supermagic” and “Pistola.” Classic Mos still has a presence in the form of all-time classics like “Quiet Dog Bite Hard” and the Black Star reunion cut “History” with Talib Kweli.

But the single most impactful song from the album happens to be my favorite song of all time, “Auditorium.” Madlib digs into his beat stash to give the production a sound likened to an introduction in a Bollywood movie. Mos Def stresses his need to speak out in a trivial time in the world, and that being exposed to different cultures helped craft his talent as a communicator to deliver his message to all forms of life, through age, race, and socioeconomic status. “Universal ghetto life, holla black you know it well.” He highlights the necessity for those who find themselves living in similar conditions to educate themselves and those around them on ways to preserve the community.

Slick Rick the Ruler makes his grand entrance in the latter portion of the track to take the form of a Black soldier stationed in Iraq. He expresses extreme discomfort in the opposite part of the world as he slowly understands the locals don’t look at him as a Black man escaping persecution and injustice in America but as a physical extension of American imperialism. To end his verse, the Ruler mentions using hip-hop to connect with the locals, as the genre has been utilized by numerous groups in the struggle to find a common understanding. Combine this thinking with Def’s dedication to universal ghetto life and you get the ethos of the album.

This album wasn’t made to reject mainstream rap of the time, or even to prove critics and fans wrong about doubting Bey’s ability to bounce back from a down period in his music. Much like a Kanye release, Bey’s intention was to move the culture forward by expanding the sounds, voices, and ideas he felt weren’t adequately represented in the genre in that moment. Unfortunately in our current streaming world, that message might be buried in the sands of time. Compared to fellow New Yorkers Jay-Z and Nas, Bey is uninterested in releasing another solo album in a physical or digital form, instead of crafting music as an experience in his interactive art installations. 

His last album isn’t even accessible to the masses anymore since it got wiped off all major streaming services a few years ago. This is extremely frustrating for me, as over the years, I’ve personally lost my whole physical music collection after the streaming tsunami hit, leaving myself and others scrambling the Internet for what seems like a lost treasure. Whether it be through buying a digital copy or pirating from some shady site (I heavily recommend you actually buy this album), The Ecstatic is an absolutely essential listen for people seeking quality production and intuitive verses that continue the legacy of spreading hip-hop to everyone.

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