May 26, 2008

Mos Def - Black On Both Sides (October 12, 1999)

He may be best known as an actor today, starring in films like Be Kind Rewind (which was not a very good movie at all, although I will concede that the overall message was touching, and the 'Sweded' films were mostly pretty funny), but there was once a time when Dante Smith, pornographically known as Mos Def, was focused on his music. The year 1999 was such a time, as Mos found himself riding a wave of critical (if not commercial) success, triggered by his Black Star collaborative effort with fellow hip hop stalwart Talib Kweli, creatively titled Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star, probably because some rock group had already taken the Black Star name (the same thing happened to failed rap supergroup The Firm). Around this time, Rawkus Records decided to invest some money into Mos and Kweli individually: Kweli went back to his friend, producer Hi-Tek, to put together a project for their duo, Reflection Eternal, while Mos Def decided to go for dolo.

Black On Both Sides is the final product. Although Mos Def had recorded songs prior to the Black Star project (and was even part of a group or two that released albums independently), this was his first solo album where he could do whatever he wanted, musically, and he took advantage of his situation by delivering an album that can only be classified as "mostly hip-hop". He appealed to both the underground and the mainstream by securing representatives from both parties to make contributions, and even decided to sing on more than a few tracks (fans of the Black Star album won't be surprised by that last statement). Rawkus was so delighted with the finished disc that they built a marketing campaign around the release of both Mos Def's album and the debut solo disc from Organized Konfusion's Pharoahe Monch, Internal Affairs, which were released a week apart.

Black On Both Sides sold well enough to earn a gold plaque from the RIAA, and even scored some airplay on MTV. The critics were kind, for the most part, but Mos Def would soon move on to Hollywood, and now only seems to focus on musical appearances of the cameo nature; his own solo albums are only sporadically released, and the fans that Black On Both Sides earned him seem to be slipping out of his grasp as each year passes.

At least there's always "Drunk & Hot Girls".

Mos Def samples Fela Kuti's "Fear Not For Man" for a rap album intro that's about four minutes too long. He does spit a short verse toward the end, though.

I would have selected something, I don't know, better as the first real song on my debut album, regardless if Diamond D had a hand in its production. But that's just me.


I've always kind of liked this Ayatollah-produced song, possibly because I remember the girl in its accompanying video being pretty cute, but I haven't seen the video in several years, so I may be mixing up my video chicks. Mos also recorded a sequel featuring, of all people, Ghostface Killah: sadly, that song isn't that great.

I remember liking this back in the day, but listening to it today, it's actually very dull. Maybe some speed would help my attention span a little, but I doubt it.

I always thought it weird that Busta Rhymes made it a point to appear on both Mos Def's and Pharoahe Monch's respective debut albums, especially since they were marketed together. I guess he thought he was doing these two underground artists a favor. Well, it worked for Pharoahe, but not so much for The Cosby Mysteries's Mos Def.

7. GOT
The Mos Def "A Tribe Called Quest" song, which is what I call this Ali-Shaheed Muhammad track. It's not as good as early Tribe material, but it sounds a bit better than the songs produced exclusively by The Ummah. All in all, I'm conflicted.

I like this song, since I usually like Mos Def's singing. However, I'm suddenly compelled to buy some Nikes.

Psycho Les (of The Beatnuts) provides a hot beat, which Mos uses to rhyme about water. Seriously. There's only a hint of metaphor here, but don't let that deter you: this song is pretty great.

I never liked this song, but that might just be because they sequenced this Psycho Les-produced track right after the far-superior, also-Psycho Les-produced "New World Water", so it never had a chance. Especially where it is most important: my heart.

Whenever anyone picks up a Mos Def or Talib Kweli solo project, they look for the collaborative song between the two that inevitably appears. Why is that, you ask? Most will say it's because of their chemistry on the Black Star project, but the true followers of Dante Smith know that it's because of "Know That". One listen to this indisputable banger will put you on the right path.

Really? You're going to follow a great fucking track like "Know That" with this crap? You're kidding, right?

Mos's hometown tribute is a three-piece composition with different instrumental backing for each component. The first movement is passable, but the song really picks up steam when the second beat kicks in, followed by a third verse which is accompanied by a straight-up beat-jacking of The Notorious B.I.G.'s "Who Shot Ya?". The original version of this song, which is easily found on the Interweb, actually showcases the Mos Def verses set to the aforementioned "Who Shot Ya?", along with Raekwon's "Incarcerated Scarfaces" and Mobb Deep's "Give Up The Goods (Just Step)", all of which are great song choices, but were never cleared for the final album.

Not a very memorable track.

15. MR. N---A (FEAT Q-TIP)
From the Nicolas Cage film of the same name.

DJ Premier has a reputation for making anyone sound good over his instrumentals, and he doesn't fail Mos Def here, but overall thisong is only average. Not that Mos can't rap; far from it. It's just that Dante sounds better over more organic hip hop beats than Primo is known for.

A very nice instrumental composition to show us to the exit.

FINAL THOUGHTS: Black On Both Sides is a decent enough debut for someone once heralded as the next big thing in hip hop. Unlike some rappers, Mos Def usually has something to say, and an effective way of saying it, but most of the beats provided for our listening pleasure here are not as good as you would hope. Overall, not bad, but clearly not great.

BUY OR BURN? Go ahead and burn the damn thing. It's not bad enough to avoid completely, but not good enough to spend more than five minutes looking for it.

BEST TRACKS: "Know That"; "May-December"; "New World Water"; "Umi Says"


Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star


  1. the most felonious vocalist in the wide world of showbusinessMay 26, 2008

    The Nicolas Cage line gets me every time.

    I strongly disagree with this review. Mos Def has long been guilty of making us sit through some slop to get to the flashes of brilliance but there's not much slop on this one. I feel like the intro can be defended but I do skip it. I also skip Rock and Roll and Climb. Other than that this is all quality material. Umi Says is bittersweet because it's the beginning of the mighty Mos Def's descent into lounge music but it's still a great song. All in all, you obviously don't know what real dudes are feeling in the coffee shops.

  2. Ok man, this time you really lost your mind - this album is one of my favorite albums of all times and everybody that i ve been showing it too instantly agreed. And why the f*** are you so paranoid with intros? Fear not of man is not an intro, it is an actual song... ever heard of spoken word? Usually i really enjoy your writings and your witty sense of humor but there are other good rap albuks out there than Liquid Swords and Cuban Linx... And before you ask i aint a Mos fanboy, i never bought any of the shit he did after this album or watch a full movie with him as an actor. But this is 10/10 in my humble opinion and you certainly need to be careful not to trash albums for the fun of it.

  3. BURN Black on Both Sides? Hip Hop could've been better? I suggest you listen again, friend, with lines like this:

    "Scrutinize my literature, from the large to the miniature
    I mathematically add-minister
    Subtract the wack
    Selector, wheel it back, I'm feeling that
    (Ha ha ha) From the core to the perimeter black,
    You know the motto
    Stay fluid even in staccato
    (Mos Def) Full blooded, full throttle
    Breathe deep inside the trunk hollow
    There's the hum, young man where you from
    Brooklyn number one
    Native son, speaking in the native tongue
    I got my eyes on tomorrow (there it is)
    While you still try to follow where it is
    I'm on the Ave where it lives and dies"

    and later:

    "Hip Hop went from selling crack to smoking it
    Medicine for loneliness
    Remind me of Thelonius and Dizzy
    Propers to B-Boys getting busy
    The war-time snap shot
    The working man's jack-pot
    A two dollar snack box
    Sold beneath the crack spot
    Olympic spnosor of the black glock
    Gold medalist in the back shot
    From the sovereign state of the have-nots
    Where farmers have trouble with cash crops (woooo)
    It's all city like phase two
    Hip Hop will simply amaze you
    Praise you, pay you
    Do whatever you say do
    But black, it can't save you"

    C'mon man, how many MCs have come up with rhymes and metaphors like this? And Hip Hop is not even the best song on the album. IMO Black on Both Sides > Black Star, you should listen again.

  4. Fuck off pussy, this album is worth the BUY. Fuck this shit pussy!

  5. What a bitch you r giving this bullshit review!

  6. Maybe you all have the disposable income to buy up every single mediocre album that the industry creates, but I'm doing the listening public a service by telling them that they can save their bucks. The album is NOT THAT GREAT. If I have to pull the 'Ras Kass' argument out, I will. Hot rhymes alone do not make an album. I made the choice to buy this album when it first dropped and while I don't regret it, there are many other albums that are more worthy of your money and time than Black On Both Sides. And yes, the Black Star album IS one of them.

    Thanks for reading! Especially the guy that called me a pussy: that shit still makes me laugh.

  7. The problem is, I don't think the production on Black Star is much better, IF better at all (though this is obviously a matter of subjectivity). Respiration is one of the best songs in hip hop, yes, but Mathematics/Hip Hop/Mr. N*gga/Habitat/Brooklyn/Ms. Fat Booty alone are all better than the songs on Black Star, with the exception of Thieves In The Night (and possibly Definition and Re:Definition). I think Mos shines more here than Talib ever did on Black Star.

    Further, I'd say for its influence on subsequent MCs, listeners, and "conscious" hip-hop alone it's worth a buy, but to each his own. Keep the reviews coming!

  8. AnonymousMay 26, 2008

    He's right u are a pussy. Just cuz the beats aren't Primo or early-mid 90s Rza don't mean they aren't listenable. Fuck this shit faggot ass goof troop lookin nigga. Eat shit and choke on it you motherfucking twat! Black On Both Sides is a great album, fuck what you think.

  9. Take your Ras Kass argument and shove it up your ass! This album is worth the $$$ and I enjoy Ras Kass, I love lyrics.

  10. M. BisonMay 26, 2008

    What a retard! This album is far from mediocre, it deserved it's 4 mics and praise that it received. The Black Star album IS the better album, but as far as Mos Def's solo shit, it's his only good solo album, give him the props it really deserves. I find the Rolling Stones reviews that don't know shit about hip hop more credible than this wack ass review.

  11. AnonymousMay 26, 2008

    Looks like YOU flip-flopped writing "REALLY GOOD," and then recommending a burn .. .

    - from Blackstar review
    "Mos threatened to start up a rock group called Black Jack Johnson, but then flip-flopped, ultimately putting out one really good album and two drink coasters in between acting gigs"

    just sayin

  12. the people flippin' out over here is pretty comical...but Max my man...what happened?
    i love this album, and the only song i don't like is "got". that sort of makes me upset, as we usually agree, but we're so far apart on this one.

  13. AnonymousMay 27, 2008

    decent review...
    I have the album,but never listened to it, burned it for folks though...

    mr. childs

  14. Mos Def to me has always been one of those "if you don't like him you don't know hip-hop" guys.

    People take it personal if you say you're not that into him or Talib or Common ____________.

    I'm not that into Mos Def, and was never into this album.

  15. Oh, add The Roots into that group, too.

  16. in all this remember: the fact that max opines that it is so does'nt make it so... if you KNOW the shit is the shit (and you do)then it really shoud'nt matter what max writes in this blasphemous tome...max's ear definitely fucked on this one... and truth be told, Mos has had some excellent lounge singer moments

  17. I think "Know That" may just be the finest instrumental made by man. It's amazing. Don't agree with the final statement, but still a good review.

  18. rock'n'roll was fuckign retarded as fuck.

  19. well i disagree on you on saying that it isnt worth the money, trust me dude it is,if u didnt like thsi album than thats you but all of us compared to you, we have other views, u cant expect your view to be the same as others, if u dont like this album then u cant encourage us not buy it,we all have different opinions bro, and theres a handfull of tracks that are hot

  20. These comments are funny. Marlo said it right, if you think it's a classic go and buy the album, Max has nothing to say that'll deter you from that. While I believe this to be a classic, Max doesn't like it. While I disagreed with about 95% of this review, it's your opinion Max. I wish there were more reviews like this though, these comments are hilarious.

  21. This album is Classic. Mathematics is one of the greatest songs of all time.

  22. Wu-Tang ForeverJanuary 14, 2011

    Hey Max, I think I actually know what you mean about the beats being... well, in your words "not as good as you would hope", through my perspective, "abstract". Which can be a good thing, and on an album like this it's a very good thing.

    But on first listen to this album I felt the same way that you did: the beats disappointed me, and although I do enjoy Mos singing I thought there was a tad too much of it for it's own good on here. It took me about 4 listens to finally realize what everybody was talking about: the album does have some bangers in the instrumental department (Hip Hop, Know That, Mathematics, New World Water) but for the most part the beats are meant to take a back seat to the lyrics and concepts, which make this album the classic that it is.

    I understand your grievances, as I had the same upon first listen, but this album grew on me considerably after successive listens. My two cents...

  23. Ms. Fat Booty is one of my favorite hip hop songs of all-time. Mos's storytelling is insane, it's easy to picture the scenes that he describes. I know it's cliche but it really is like an artist painting a picture. The beat is insane too, absolute masterpiece of a song.

  24. this album is trash. big up to max for not being scared to speak the truth!