by / November 21st, 2014 /

Opinion: Mos Def – Black on Both Sides (revisited)

To commemorate the 15th anniversary of his seminal Black on Both Sides album, Mos Def comes to Dublin for an extremely rare performance on Monday night. The chance to see one of hip-hop’s most notable visionaries live is one which may not come up again for some time so to celebrate, takes a look back at the album which arguably dragged hip-hop into the 21st century….

Shunning aggression and posturing in favour of social commentary, Black on Both Sides is considered one of the first rap albums to speak in positive terms about the art form as well as the plight of those involved with it. Rather than shout the odds like many of his peers, Mos Def took a far more passive approach and in doing so, with the albums laconic, easy beats overlaid with his laid back almost louche rhyming, he became one of the genre’s most remarkable artists. How many rappers before him used faith, soul, love and harmony to make their points? Stretched over 17 tracks and featuring almost as many producers, the album marked a watershed for what it meant to be a hip-hop artist. More specifically, it reassured everyone involved with the music that its future was still in their own hands.

Opening track, ‘Fear Not of Man’, besides being fairly heavy on faith, was literally a rallying cry in which Mos Def drives home the fact that hip-hop was the master of its own destiny and not the gimmicky, diluted novelty it had become. A point he carried on into the track ‘Hip Hop’ with its smooth-as-fuck bass line. Only two songs in and the album feels like Summer in the Valley.

‘Ms. Fat Booty’ is the album’s first stand-out track, sampling Aretha Franklin’s ‘One Step Ahead’ and a statement of intent as much as it is a song. Mos Def’s rhyming as slick as it gets and the killer use of breaks throughout are a masterclass. This is what Mos does for the rest of the album, sometimes he is nothing short of majestic and, when everything works, it works to devastating effect.

Not quite flawless, however, are the tracks on which content is traded for texture. ‘Got’ and ‘Umi Says’ tend to drift into lounge jazz – Starbucks style – at the wrong time in the album’s sequence but that’s not to say that they’re not befitting of the album, they just stop it from soaring. Fear not, before long he was back in business with the genius ‘Rock n Roll’ and the epic ‘Brooklyn’ – three songs in one with a different producer for each movement. ‘Mr. Nigga’, probably the track that fortifies the album with greatness, will probably be the track we remember after Monday night not just for the passion and conviction but the joy in it. And this is without addressing it’s message. So Black on Both Sides is an album worth celebrating in its own right, but to have the unique opportunity to revisit it in the presence of its creator is not to be missed.

Mos Def plays in Dublin’s Vicar Street this Monday, November 24th. Tickets are available here.