Mos Def, 'The Ecstatic' (Downtown)

Critical Mass
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by J Gabriel Boylan

Within a few verses of thunderous lead-off track "Supermagic," underpinned by a righteous sample of Turkish psych songstress Selda Bagcan, "Cherokee chief rocka" Mos Def more than makes amends for three years away from hip-hop, not to mention his disastrous 2006 Geffen swan song, True Magic. Despite estimable acting chops (The Woodsman, Something the Lord Made), the former Black Star co-captain is among our greatest MCs, and The Ecstatic is easily his finest full-length since Black on Both Sides, his 1999 solo debut.

First single "Life in Marvelous Times" builds a furious narrative -- moving from the rapper's project upbringing to the present, where wonders and terrors abound -- over an epic, sticky synth beat (from Ed Banger producer Mr. Flash). While he professes to send his message to the "penthouse, pavement, and curb," it's the grimy, not glossy, that dominates here.

"Wahid" continues the Near Eastern theme as Mos lyrically collapses the inner city and the battlefield, two places where guns and bulletproof vests proliferate. "Twilight Speedball" posits the rapper's flow as a drug, full of "bad news and good dope." and despite invoking Obama on "History," Mos trades rhymes with old partner Talib Kweli, powerfully asserting that the present remains tense -- and hope still has a lot of work to do.

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