Happy 10th Anniversary to Mos Def’s fourth studio album The Ecstatic, originally released June 9, 2009.
About 10 years ago, a video popped up on YouTube of Dante “Yasiin Bey” Smith formerly known as The Mighty Mos Def showing his love for MF DOOM. He stands in the studio, effortlessly spitting DOOM verses, mostly from songs from MM… Food (2014). When someone off-screen then suggests it might be a challenge for Mos to write with DOOM, Mos smirks a little. “Actually, it would be fun, because he rhymes as weird as I feel,” he responds. “I swear to God, when I saw that Madvillain record [Madvillany (2004)], I bought it on vinyl; I ain’t have a record player. I bought it on vinyl just to stare at the album. And I stared at it and I just kept going, ‘…I understand you.’”
While these moments were being taped, Mos was in the studio to record The Ecstatic, his fourth solo project. And it makes sense that he was singing the praises of the Metal Faced Terrorist in this setting, because The Ecstatic is very much influenced by DOOM. Released 10 years ago, its Mos Def’s version of Madvillainy.
The Ecstatic came a decade after Mos’ Black On Both Sides (1999), his successful and acclaimed debut solo album. Between Black Star (1998), his team-up with Talib Kweli, and Black On Both Sides, Mos Def was shaping up to be something truly special: a dynamic and charismatic personality who could rap, sing, and even act. People, including myself, believed it was the beginnings of what was to be a storied career.
Unfortunately, Mos’ musical journey got a little bumpy through most of the ’00s. He followed up BOBS with the extremely ambitious but ultimately bloated and directionless The New Danger (2004). And then he followed New Danger up with Tru3 Magic (2006), an album that lacked both ambition and direction. While New Danger was at least sincere, Tru3 Magic was completely phoned in, the work of an artist trying to get out of his record deal. During this period, Mos seemed to focus more on his film career than his musical output, and the lack of interest showed.
Fortunately, The Ecstatic was a return to form for Mos Def, in terms of quality if not style. Mos had always been a left-of-center, bugged out emcee, and that holds true on even his most “traditional” efforts. With The Ecstatic, he channels DOOM in terms of execution and creates an album more bugged and left-of-center than anything that he recorded previously. However, the album still appealed to fans of Mos’ music and is one of the best hip-hop albums released in 2009.
Mos keeps things brief, often kicking one verse or two short ones before moving on. There are still 16 tracks on the album, but barely half of them exceed three minutes in length, keeping Ecstatic running a little over 45 minutes. Beat-wise, he enlists a whole host of producers, including Madlib himself and his younger brother Ohno, to provide him with a trippy soundscape. The tracks take elements of everything from Afrobeat to traditional Indian and Middle Eastern music.
But even with the clear Madvillain/DOOM influences, The Ecstatic still very much feels like a Mos Def album. In fact, I’d say it does the best job of any of his solo albums at incorporating both his rapping and singing talents. Hell, Mos evens finds a way to incorporate his penchant for mumble-warbling classic hip-hop tracks, an exercise he engaged in for far too long periods of time on Tru3 Magic.
Mos opens the album with the grand and bombastic “Twilite Speedball.” Produced by The Neptunes, Mos raps over what sounds like a marching band-like horn section, paired with vibraphone and guitar licks. Mos almost immediately shows the years haven’t slowed him down, as he raps, “Old dads drop the jewels so pure / When the times get raw, there’s something I recall / Sometimes I don’t remember it at all.”
The meat of Ecstatic is made up of the aforementioned brief tracks where Mos succinctly makes his statement and moves on—songs like “Wahid,” “Priority,” “Revelations,” “Embassy,” and “Workers Comp.” all run somewhere between a minute and a half to two minutes, and their brevity gives the album a momentum and energy lacking in his other solo projects.
Of these entrees, “Embassy” stands out, as Mos assumes the role of government agent, blasé in his travels across the world as he works to undermine foreign powers. Another highlight is the Preservation-produced “Wahid,” which features Mos restating his status as an iconoclastic emcee, ready to forge his own path. He raps, “No chain, nada jewelry that jackers can’t snatch / The gingerbread the slave masters can't catch / Brrrrapppp! Now put your minds on that / Get real or get back. Quit fronting, face facts.”
Mos channels MF DOOM the most clearly on “Pistola,” his ode to the hazardous nature of love and the emotional violence that it can inflict. He even somewhat assumes DOOM’s flow as he raps, “Bad intentions and a very good shot / X marks the spot where you cross the heart.” Behind the boards, Ohno does an amazing job chopping and transforming the sample of Billy Wooten and the Wooden Glass’ version of “In the Rain,” making it a perfect backdrop for Mos to sing portions of The Intruders “Cowboys to Girls.”
“Life In Marvelous Times” wonderfully details life in 1982 in the Bed-Stuy neighborhood of Brooklyn. Mos paints verbal pictures of the neighborhood a few years before crack cocaine hit the streets and decades before gentrification. Along with French producer Mr. Flash, Mos produces a beat heavy on grandeur, complete with soaring strings and a horn section, adding to the song’s epic feel.
Mos invokes another one of his musical heroes, Fela Kuti, on the dynamic “Quiet Dog Bite Hard.” Filled with propulsive, high energy percussion and hand claps, Mos flips a double time flow, delivering a wave of lyrics dedicated to the importance of preserving hip-hop culture. “No Hay Nada Mas” features Mos rapping in Spanish, mournfully contemplating life and the hardships that he’s seen. Preservation did some of his best production for the song, layering lush, overlapping strings and harps over a stuttering drum track.
Mos enlists a few guests for Ecstatic, some unexpected, and others familiar. Slick Rick the Ruler returns to contribute another unique story on “Auditorium,” a Bollywood-inflected jam produced by Madlib. Rick perfectly describes life as a U.S. solider occupying Iraq, looking to keep the peace and even after the military has delivered crippling blows to the country. He eventually learns to win the native citizens’ hearts and minds through his skills as an emcee. To this day, when Mos performs the song live, he allows the Slick Rick lines to play over the speakers in its entirety.
“History” serves as a Black Star reunion, as Kweli joins Mos to explore their love for their native borough. Even over a decade after releasing Black Star, it’s apparent that the duo still have ample chemistry while working together, providing the “alkalines, aminos and minerals essentials / served over Dilla time signatures.” Both emcees describe the Brooklyn of their birth and how they and the boroughs have grown over the decades, resulting in one of the best posthumously produced tracks by J Dilla.
The inclusion of “Roses” on the album seems a bit odd. The song is essentially a remix of a Georgia Anne Muldrow song of the same name, which appeared on her Umsido album, also released in 2009. Mos attaches his adlibs and a single verse to the jazzy piano and synth driven song, but it’s mostly Ms. Muldrow’s show.
The album ends with “Casa Bey,” a sort-of cover of Banda Black Rio’s “Casa Forte.” Mos rhymes over the entirety of the original song, adding in stabs of sampled vocals, making the track even more chaotic. The track eventually slows down, closing with a melodic piano solo. The song earned Mos a Grammy nomination for Best Rap Solo Performance in 2010, and surveying the other nominees and the winner (Jay-Z’s “Death of Autotune), he definitely should have taken home the statue. Truthfully, Ecstatic should have also won for Best Rap Album, especially since it was beaten out by Eminem’s Relapse.
It would be nice to say that the artistic and critical success of The Ecstatic successfully relaunched Mos Def’s career as Yasiin Bey, but we weren’t so lucky. He continued to record excellent guest appearance for artists like Ski Beatz and Curren$y immediately afterwards, but album-wise, this has been Mos’ last hurrah. The Ecstatic is the last album I acknowledge that he released, as the less said about December 99th, the better.
A few years ago Mos claimed that he was getting ready to retire from music, but he now appears to have relented. Though it’s not clear how much time he spends in the studio creating music, he still tours with Kweli as part of Black Star. I continue to hope he will refocus himself artistically. If nothing else, The Ecstatic reminded us that when Mos gives a shit, he’s still as good as anyone at recording music.