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Mos Def
The New Danger

Some people should stick to what they do best. Mos Def, the most luminous member of the now-defunct Rawkus collective, has returned with his first full-length since 1999's scintillating Black on Both Sides, and everybody's left scratching their heads. After five years, to the day, this is what we get?

Effortlessly cool and ultra-talented, Brooklyn's Mos Def blew onto the undie-hop backpacker scene in 1998 with comrade-in-arms Talib Kweli (who, with his latest release, The Beautiful Struggle, has transmogrified into Stevie Wonder's evil, boring cousin), and released the scene-defining Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star. A year later, Mos followed with his solo debut and cemented his status as the most exciting, forward-thinking MC in recent years. Then the creative pot spilt, and its contents have spread thin across the floor ever since.

Mos' subsequent moves have ranged from daring (his brilliant turn in Suzann-Lori Parks' Pulitizer Prize-winning play "Top Dog/Underdog" on Broadway) to intriguing (his Afro-rock project Black Jack Johnson with members of Parliament and Bad Brains, notorious for their quaking live shows) to bewilderingly commercial ("The Italian Job," anyone?). So after years of sieve-like promises and delayed street dates, The New Danger just fell out of the sky last month with an incendiary ad campaign, showcasing Mos in a dapper, grown-ass man ensemble and blackface with a solid spot slotted on Geffen's winter schedule. So, I repeat: this is what we get?

The New Danger is overambitious and undercooked, adventurous and bland all at once. Clearly unable to pry the necessary funds from his label to support a Black Jack Johnson album, he just combined that project with his hip-hop jones, in the process fumbling his reputation as an artist with an eye for cohesion. Like a pinball, The New Danger bounces, skips and slides all over the place, failing to ever settle into a groove. Unlike its predecessor, which was certainly focused. The New Danger isn't exactly a bad album, but at 18 tracks and more than 70 minutes it's a bloated carcass of ideas.

The album opens just like Black on Both Sides with a somber intonation of "Bismillah ir Rahman ir Raheem" ("In the name of God, the most merciful, most compassionate"). However, his debut's opening salvo, "Fear Not of Man," signaled an earthy but booming introduction to Mos Def: Solo Stunner. "The Boogie Man Song," Danger's first cut, is a meandering, half-sung piano roll of sloppy declaration. "The most beautiful boogie man" is seemingly the once-charismatic Mos himself, but the loose strumming and atmospheric production sounds more like Broken Social Scene than Boogie Down Productions.

"Freaky Black Greetings," "Ghetto Rock" and "Zimzallabim" all rock out like a livid Living Colour while ranting and raving about um... well, these songs appear to not be about a whole lot but rocking out. Which doesn't really make them much better than Mötley Crüe if you're a message kind of hip-hopper. "Ghetto Rock," to its credit, features a raw, stinging guitar chord and vaguely grimy hip-hop drums. But all Mos can muster is "Dirty Dirty is you gettin' crunk wit it?" Is this the same guy who deftly compared Brooklyn to a breathing creature full of hustling, bustling of tough tusslin'? Apparently.

His first album had songs with themes (whether about the necessity of water in the world or the demystification of black music and white thievery); it was a well-constructed concept album. Both Sides was clever, thumping and interesting. It kept listeners on their toes. On that album's "Rock and Roll" he lampooned Limp Bizkit. On "Zimzallabim," he sounds like he's aping Durst. Strange, because the song was produced by East Coast boards genius Easy Mo Bee, he of the Biggie bangers. One of the few rock tracks that works is "Blue Black Jack," another song not about much, but it features a gritty blues-rock solo from Shuggie Otis and sports Mos' best singing since "Umi Says." Still, it ain't more than a Stevie Ray Vaughan retread gone Rawkus.

"The Rape Over" takes Jay-Z's classic diss track, "The Takeover," and flips the script to declare that "tall Israelis," "quasi-homosexuals" and "Viacom, AOL and Time Warner" are running the rap business. It's sort of a clever idea, but simply lifting the Doors' "Five to One" for a backing track and adding shoddily recorded vocals makes the idea fizzle in a cloud of pretension. And we sure don't need anti-Semitism from Mos Def; he should be ashamed. Surely he understands that there's no difference between anti-Semitism and racism!

The first fully-realized rap song comes nearly 30 minutes in with "Sex, Love & Money," a well-produced facsimile of what this album probably should have sounded like. Waryn "Baby Dubb" Campbell layers pushy horns over hand claps and muted tambourines. It stomps, but as an MC Mos doesn't exactly thrill. "Sunshine" crackles and is instantly recognizable as the perfunctory Kanye West track, though it's likable thanks to a sped-up soul sample, spindly strings and familiar snare snaps.

The rap parade continues with "Close Edge," an Egyptian hoedown produced by Mos' musical tag team partner, Minnesota. They're all good examples of how Mos could have followed a poor-selling Black Jack Johnson up with a cohesive rap album. Alas.

One of the most recognizable Black Jack Johnson remnants left over from their live show is "War," a song that could have been a colossal disaster, but actually slowly builds into a blind fury that recalls Rage Against the Machine with an itching for lady love. The midsong breakdown allows Mos to transform into a Zach de la Rocha for "Goodfellas" fans ("Fuck you, pay me" is shouted over and over). "Grown Man Business" squanders a long-desired Barry White sample by letting Minnesota handle the song's first verse, which isn't as true school as it thinks. The vocals also appear to have been taped off the radio for this disappointing song.

"Modern Marvel" is the strangest spice in The New Danger's rack. With an eerily lulling Marvin Gaye vocal bit rising in and out, Mos weaves, sings, raps and vocally convulses through the song's languorous nine and a half minutes. It commits a cardinal sin for experimental rappers: Do not let your singing career take you past the five-minute mark, especially under Marvin's honeyed wounds; you'll sound like an imposter. "Life Is Real," "The Easy Spell," and "The Beggar" all meld together and are largely unmemorable.

The closer, "Champion Requiem," is the best straight hip-hop on The New Danger, though, content-wise, it's another bland big-up to God. There's a manic energy to the song that's lacking on most of the rest of the album — several have suggested his heart isn't in it anymore. 88 Keys, one of the architects of Mos Def and Black Star's early recordings, unsurprisingly laces the hottest track here. Ah, if only Geffen had sprung for that pesky Black Jack Johnson album. Maybe "Champion Requiem" would be less funereal and more triumphant.

The New Danger should be commended for experimentation and a refusal to confine itself to the "niggas and The Neptunes" aesthetic that eventually creeps into some conscious MCs' (a title that is now surely dead) oeuvre over time. But it's so confused about what it wants to be, from thematic intentions to bungled sequencing to lousy mixing, that we should just be resigned and console ourselves with the fact that Mos can still act.

by Sean Fennessey

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