Happy 15th Anniversary to Mos Def’s second studio album The New Danger, originally released October 12, 2004.
The New Danger is unlike any other hip-hop album. Which shouldn’t come as a major surprise because Mos Def, now going by the name Yasiin Bey, has always been an artist who defied convention.
Consider that by his 25th birthday, the Mighty Mos Def was already balancing duel careers of rapping and acting. With respect to the former, he led the charge of hip-hop’s independent defiance against the highly commercialized mainstream, as the flagship artist of the young indie label Rawkus Records. His collaborative 1998 project Mos Def And Talib Kweli Are Black Star formally introduced him (and his partner-in-rhyme Talib Kweli) to the masses, earning acclaim from critics and hardcore rap fans alike. He released his solo debut Black On Both Sides (1999) a year later and his profile was elevated even further.
With an already impressive resume for a young rap artist, Mos would leverage that industry capital to develop his professional prowess in multiple fields. Legitimizing his presence on the big screen, Mos seized his supporting roles in Spike Lee’s film Bamboozled (2000), the Hip-Hop love story Brown Sugar (2002). He scored a major breakout with HBO’s Something the Lord Made (2004), which earned him an Emmy, Golden Globe, and NAACP Image nomination for his portrayal of pioneering physician Vivien Thomas.
As if this wasn’t exhaustive enough of a workload, Mos Def also managed to ambassador hip-hop culture on television as well. This encompassed appearing on the improvisational sketch-comedy The Lyricist Lounge Show which aired from 2000 to 2001, hosting HBO’s Def Poetry Jam from 2002 to 2007, and being a frequent guest on his friend Dave Chappelle’s Chappelle’s Show which helped redefine comedy in its three seasons from 2003 to 2006.
Simply put, Mos Def was showcasing his many talents at a high level, in multiple areas, proving to be our very own Hip-Hop Renaissance Man, like Amiri Baraka, or even Paul Robeson before him. His rare talent profile, which was built on a foundation of classic B-Boy lyricism, had all the makings of a GOAT contender, fueling the high expectations for his sophomore effort The New Danger.
Poised by such a vast artistic repertoire, The New Danger is one of hip-hop’s most ambitious presentations that finds Mos displaying his vintage freestyle type of delivery for his core backpack audience, while charting some new territory with his Black Jack Johnson rap/rock project. Bronx, NY native Minnesota—who was a rising sound wizard in the industry, building his own impressive resume by helping secure hits for Grand Puba with his 1995 LP’s title song “2000” and Big Pun’s smash single “I’m not a Playa (1998)—bore the heaviest production load. He was credited with six of the album’s eighteen tracks, including “Ghetto Rock,” which served as the LP’s second single that anchored the album as a hybrid fusion of funk, soul, hip-hop, and rock overtones.
Understated in Mos’ extensive catalog, “Ghetto Rock” is not only a great example of his many talents crammed into a three-and-a-half-minute song, but also Minnesota’s ability to help him use his newly acquired star-power to be an envoy of his native public housing culture to his college dorm listeners. Mos’ lyrics “Speak language come straight from the gutter / observe the terms that we trade with one and other like - what's good, what's popping, what's cracking / what it is, how you living, what's happening / work songs that the slaves sang back then / the playground chants, with little girls clapping” speak to the soul of his artistry, as Minnesota transitions the beat into a hand-clapping call-and-response indicative of young black children that help bring life to deprived neighborhoods across the U.S..
Still enjoying the success from his debut solo album The College Dropout released earlier that year, producer extraordinaire Kanye West made room in his busy schedule to contribute his studio acumen to The New Danger, repaying Mos Def for lending his rhymes to College Dropout’s gritty street sonnet “Two Words.” Sampling The 5th Dimension’s “Aquarius” for the song “Sunshine,” West helps Mos Def lyrically revisit his Bed-Stuy roots, while explaining the environment’s impact on his art and worldview with the bars, “Cause it is deeper, sweeter, richer, crisper / stronger reception and sharper picture / revolve around God, and involve with n****s / these elements help evolve my scripture / and make Mos Def a classic, modern figure.”
Produced by the legendary Easy Mo Bee, “Zimzallabim” also features help from iconic figures Bernie Worrell of Parliament-Funkadelic and Gary “Dr. Know” Miller of Bad Brains. The energetic war-chant serves as the musical mission statement for Black Jack Johnson, as Mos proclaims over the melodic beat accentuated with well-placed guitar riffs, “You know this, other cats run game with, it's tainted / Consider this the moment that changed it: NOW/ Jack John's stand strong never bow down/ back off or get clapped dog right about POW / from east to the west, up north to down south / we show you how to really make mosh-pit bounce / show you how the gritty make the ghetto wild out.”
Another noteworthy track is “War,” which reunited Mos with the Beatnuts’ Psycho Les, who offered two beats on Black On Both Sides. Autumn of 2004 was still a tumultuous time in the arena of geopolitics, a subject Mos Def never shied away from, either in his music or through his international activism. Receiving the additional charge from his Black Jack Johnson brethren, Will Calhoun and Doug Wimbish of Living Colour, Mos challenges some of the globalist policy that had U.S. troops engaged in two unpopular conflicts at the time, reflecting, “But for now I'm a soldier abidin' my time / writin' my rhyme behind enemy lines /Palestine, Kosovo, Cashmere / no different than the avenues right here / an increase in the murder rate each year / paramilitary unit keep the streets clear / curtains up on the theatre of warfare.”
Aside from hardcore raps and rock & roll fist pumps, The New Danger also provides some grown-up moments, tapping an expert in the category, producer Warryn Campbell (Brandy, Dru Hill) for the LP’s lead single “Sex, Love, and Money.” Proving he could rock clubs and radio airways, along with mixtapes “Sex, Love, and Money” helped push the LP toward Mos’ second consecutive gold certification. “The Panties” was about as sensual as Mos Def ever attempted to be and reaffirmed that he was even a respectable vocalist amongst his many other talents.
“Modern Marvel” is the apex of the album’s ambition, as Minnesota splices the vocals of Marvin Gaye’s “Flyin’ High (In the Friendly Sky)” over his rhythmic interpolation, while Mos imagines a present-day conversation with the soul man if he were alive to witness the “Inner City Blues” of the early ‘00s.
The New Danger was released not long after Rawkus changed distributors, which may have stifled some of the promotion needed for such a wide-eyed, genre-blurring LP. In full transparency, I’m a bit partial to The New Danger, as my first date with the love of my life was on this album’s promotional tour. But as sentimental as the LP may be in my home, even I can admit that there were some moments of ring-rust for the champion who took a full five-year layoff between projects. Mos’ boundless skillset, for a moment, made him the Sammy Davis Jr. for my generation, but perhaps also muted his full mastery of album construction.
A superior project and valiant effort, The New Danger does however fall short of being the male equivalent of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, a feat that was never too far out of reach for hip-hop’s distinguished renaissance man.