Mos Def's sophomore album, The New Danger, is remarkably different from his 1999 bow, Black on Both Sides. That memorable debut possessed literate rhymes delivered with razor sharp timing; The New Danger relies on smart scat rap leisurely doled out. Black on Both Sides offered late-Nineties boom bap and neo-soul; The New Danger indulges in Black Rock Coalition grunge and Ghostface Killah-styled soul loops. Black on Both Sides was a hallmark of indie rap heroics; The New Danger is pure black bohemianism, one of a growing canon built on OutKast's Stankonia.
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What the albums share, however, is overweening ambition, and The New Danger is more than just Mos Def bugging out in a studio. "Lapdance (YEA)" is hard, freaky funk courtesy of his hard rock side project, Black Jack Johnson, while "Sunshine" is a psychedelic roots winner produced by Kanye West. Then there's the nine-minute opus, "Modern Marvel," where Mos Def builds to an epiphany over a reverberating sample of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On." "If Marvin was alive now/Wow, what would I say to him," he says, "Global imprisonment, sickness, indifference/When he said, öSave the babies,' was we listening?"
It's a testament to Mos Def's power as a conceptualist that he comes close to articulating his vision, similar to Sly Stone's There's a Riot Going On, of a recording that eerily reflects the imperiled state of people of color in this country without necessarily articulating those concerns -- even "War" is used for vague declamatory verses instead of the analytical and precise dialectics he was once known for.
Unfortunately, it's that same lack of attention to detail that eventually anesthetizes the album. Barring moments of clarity such as "Modern Marvel," many songs just meander into rambling, freestyle-like raps. On "Life is Real," he tailors a host of rhymes around the same end words, rapping "My whole life is real/Morning, noon, and night is real/When I spit, what I write is real." The effect would be kinetic if he were flowing on a hit such as Busta Rhymes's "Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See," for example. But the music, mostly produced by Minnesota and himself, pleases sporadically, too often mimicking Mos Def's own vocal wanderings.
The New Danger seems perfect for a year filled with interesting, occasionally awe-inspiring albums that don't really work as a whole, from The Fiery Furnaces's Blueberry Boat to The Roots's The Tipping Point. Of course, it's those brief, brilliant sparks that everyone remembers, and make Mos Def's vacillations worth listening to.