CD Review of The Ecstatic by Mos Def
Mos Def: The Ecstatic
Recommended if you like
Black Star, J Dilla, Aesop Rock
Label
Downtown
Mos Def: The Ecstatic

Reviewed by Jeff Giles

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I’m bright as the AM," raps Mos Def on "Quiet Dog," a standout track from his fourth LP, and even if portions of the album don’t live up to the braggadocio of that claim, The Ecstatic still marks a surprising return to form for a wayward MC whose acting career seemed to sap the energy from his musical pursuits in the ‘90s.

It may not strike you that way at first, however. Mos Def made a name for himself as a performer whose instincts were more artistic than commercial, and that’s The Ecstatic in a nutshell; in terms of immediate accessibility, it’s perhaps the most willfully diffident hip-hop record you’re liable to hear all year. If you’ve listened to leadoff singles "Life in Marvelous Times" and "Quiet Dog" and wondered where the shiny, Top 40-ready hooks are, be prepared to continue asking yourself the same question throughout Ecstatic’s 16 tracks. It’s the type of album that ambles in an uneven line, refusing to look you in the eye – one whose depths are often hidden, either beneath spongy walls of noise or seemingly unfinished song fragments. Pass through it a couple of times without paying close attention, and you may even wonder where the songs are.

Take the time to absorb it, however, and The Ecstatic pays handsome dividends. Rich rewards are buried within its squirrelly grooves, from the bewitching Slick Rick cameo in the Madlib-assisted "Auditorium" to the interplay between Def and old partner Talib Kweli in the summery, asphalt-scented "History." Though they’re undeniably unorthodox choices for singles, "Life in Marvelous Times" and "Quiet Dog" are deeply addictive; the synth splashes and surging, slow-building groove of the former contrasts bittersweet memories of early ‘80s Bed-Stuy with the thrilling promise felt at the dawn of the Obama era, while the latter breathlessly picks the pocket of "Rapper’s Delight" over a thunderous, handclap-assisted groove. Like the rest of Ecstatic’s high points, they may not be able to touch T-Pain for crossover appeal, but they’ll doubtless prove more durable in the long run.

That being said, there’s still the matter of the album’s less well-constructed bits; it seems doubtful, for instance, that anyone will pick up a copy of The Ecstatic hoping to hear Def sing in Spanish, but that’s exactly what you get in the seemingly cough syrup-induced "No Hay Nada Mas." Other tracks, like "The Embassy," "Workers Comp," and "Pretty Dancer," never fire on all cylinders; alongside more fully realized cuts, such as the frenetic, horn-laced closing track "Casa Bey," they sound like half-baked home demos. It’s got highs to match its lows, but The Ecstatic is a markedly uneven record, and to truly enjoy it, you’ve got to be willing to embrace the peculiar stops and starts in its flow.

At bottom, though, whatever else it is, the album is a damn sight better than 2006’s dismal True Magic, and proof positive that Hollywood hasn’t dulled Mos Def’s singular artistic gifts. Not quite as bright as the AM, perhaps, but close enough to let it slide.

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