MOS DEF Black On Both Sides (Rawkus)
On his 1999 solo debut (having previously recorded as one half of Black Star) Mos Def sounds a little like an older, wiser Nas, benefitting from a slightly heavier and fatter soundtrack woven from a bewildering array of samples (Fela Kuti, Eric B & Rakim, Bill Evans, Aretha Franklin, Beastie Boys, Big Brother & The Holding Company, Mobb Deep, Raekwon and James Brown all being in there somewhere).
A dense album, with most tracks shunted straight into each other without breaks, it begins with the hip-hop state of the nation address “Fear Not Of Man”, musically irresistible thanks to its chiming percussion and fairground organ riff. “Love” and “Habitat” draw on the artist’s autobiography, and on “Do it Now” Busta Rhymes fills in the few gaps in Mos’ delivery. Jazz fusion sounds lap gently beneath the rolling beats of “Umi Says”, and “Climb” is deep, spacey soul with an intricate, woozy web of vocal harmonies.
There are some appropriately angry moments here, too, although they sneak up on the listener stealthily. Smuggled in on what sounds like a cantering xylophone riff, “New World Water” examines the role of the titular liquid in black history, from the slave ships onwards, an association that Hurricane Katrina would deepen in the future. “Rock N Roll” subtly engages with the mainstream, mapping a history of the genre alternate to the whitewashed official version, substituting Little Richard, Bo Diddley, James Brown, John Lee Hooker, Nina Simone and John Coltrane for The Rolling Stones, Elvis and, um, Kenny G, before subverting any remaining unshredded preconceptions with a hardcore punk coda. “Mr. Nigga” digs even deeper, a deceptively sultry, swinging groove shouldering Mos’ rising outrage at his experiences of racist double standards. In this context, ending the album with the instrumental “May-December” seems a curious decision, softening the impact of what’s gone before. It doesn’t detract from the album’s deep-rooted excellence, however.
In common with other Rawkus vinyl I own, this pressing of “Black On Both Sides” is shabby enough to have me questioning its authenticity, with its low-contrast cover art, barely legible text and bubbles in the vinyl. It sounds reasonable enough, bar some sibilance in places, but pride of ownership barely applies.