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Music Reviews

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Mos Def
The New Danger
Geffen Records

Rating: NR/10 ?

February 18, 2005
I remember when I was a kid and I got in trouble for something, just before my dad punished me, he'd say, "This is going to hurt me more than you." That's how I feel about the review I know I have to write for this album.

I've been a huge Mos Def supporter (and on several occasions, defender) for more than five years now. I've always admired his style and creativity. His Black Star project with Talib Kweli had me believing you could be spiritually correct and socially conscious without losing street cred or cool points.

And I, along with pretty much every other critic, thought sides A and B of Mos Def's Black on Both Sides were the set of jumper cables hip hop needed to get a real movement started again. You almost had to step back from the stereo after you pushed play so you wouldn't get shocked.

Mos Def has always been, to me anyway, one of those guys that could do just about anything he wanted - because he was that good. It's like when John Cusack makes High Fidelity and then America's Sweethearts. You go see them both - even though you know the latter is going to suck - because, well, Cusack is your guy.

I guess the reason I'm disappointed with The New Danger is because up until now, Mos Def never made an America's Sweethearts. But this is it.

I wish I could say something nice here, like, "The premise of the album is great. It's just not carried out that well." But that's not even true.

The premise: Mos Def snatches up Living Colour and Bad Brains guys and starts a band, Black Jack Johnson - named after the wild-living, super-suave boxer who knocked Tommy Burns and the rest of white America off their feet in 1908 to become the first black heavyweight champ. Black Jack Johnson, the band, is supposed to crank out a new version of rap-rock. Yawn. It didn't help that Mos Def openly criticized Limp Bizkit as the project was developing (Isn't that like going to a playground and beating up little kids? Of course, Black Jack Johnson is going to be better than Limp Bizkit).

The result is even more depressing than the premise. Some 12 years after the Judgment Night Soundtrack brought hip hop and metal (including Living Colour) together for a whole album of rap-rockin', no single band, save maybe Rage Against the Machine, has been able to match the intensity and originality of that project. And Mos' new album fails miserably on both counts.

The fact that the band only appears on about half of the songs amplifies my assumption that the guys on the guitars and drums were tapped to play second fiddle to the rapper/singer. An eight- or ten-track album under the name Black Jack Johnson could have had some potential. But then, when was the last time you saw John Cusack in a supporting role?

I have great hopes for Black Jack Johnson, if Mos will set higher standards for them than simply being better than Limp Bizkit. Although he doesn't completely let loose on The New Danger, Mos has a great singing voice. Anyone who's ever heard it will know what I mean when I say that he's a lot like yours when you're in the shower - maybe not the most talented, but confident and focused and enthusiastic.

The problem here isn't so much that Black Jack Johnson doesn't work. I would argue that it does - particularly on "War" and "Blue Black Jack" (which features the great Shuggie Otis, who is at his funkiest). And I would suspect that Black Jack Johnson rocks pretty hard live - it just doesn't come through on the album at all.

To make matters worse, the songs without the band are actually better. As much as I hate to say it, the Kanye West-produced tracks "The Rape Over" - a takeoff on Jay-Z's "The Take Over" - and "Sunshine" are two of the best songs on the album. They are what we want from Mos Def - braggadocio, charisma, intelligence, rhythm, style, simplicity.

How can you not like these opening lines from "Sunshine": "I don't hate players. I don't love the game. I'm the shot clock - way above the game."

And he hits us again with that subtle critique of his fellow rappers, in a way only Mos can do, on "Modern Marvel" with: "You shop in the hood. We get the picture. Because every time you're in the hood, you've got photographers wit ya."

Plus, he actually has a semi-rockin' track on The New Danger called "The Easy Spell," where he plays all the instruments himself, Shuggie Otis-style. It begs the question, why even have a band?

Maybe the biggest problem with this album is its dual personality and Mos Def's lack of commitment to perfecting either one. It seems to me that they've both taken a back seat to his acting career, and this album was more of an obligation to impatient fans like me (for which I say a simple thank you) while he went to grab roles in some pretty damn good movies (including Italian Job, Woodsman and Monster's Ball).

But as I watched Melissa Rivers annoyingly call him "Moss Def" on the red carpet when he was nominated for a Golden Globe for "Something the Lord Made," I was both proud of him and saddened for him.

You want to see someone with all the charisma of Mos Def do whatever the hell he wants to do. He should be making movies and albums. And both of them should win awards - but this album screams of growing pains, and, for me, it hurt to listen.

Reviewed by Taylor Loyal
The last we heard, Taylor was living in Nashville, Tennessee, home of the guitar-shaped swimming pool.

See other reviews by Taylor Loyal



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