February 18, 2009

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

(Today, Karl brings us an alternate view on Mos Def’s solo debut, Black On Both Sides. It had been a while since I listened to this album, so reading this made me want to listen to it again. So I did. And my opinion stayed exactly the fucking same. But I appreciated the writing.)

The two of you who read this blog might have considered Max to be a little crazy for saying Black On Both Sides was only worth a burn, and I would be inclined to agree. (Only a little crazy?) I've always felt like this album was dope for the most part. I guess it’s sort of nostalgic for me: I was always a jazz/big band/R&B/soul kind of guy before I really got into rap music. I started off with the obvious shit (Biggie, Pac, Nas, Jay-Z, etc.), then delved into stuff you didn't hear on Hot 97 regularly like De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, and, of course, Mos Def. Now, I'm immersed in the culture, to say the least.

But back to the album: outside of Internet message board bottom feeders (I joke, I kid) and those cults of super-conscious weed puffing hip-hop heads at college, I have found few people who have even heard of Black On Both Sides, much less have some sort of opinion about it. And those who are familiar with Dante Smith himself only seem know him as "that deaf n---a from The Italian Job” or, for some reason, absolutely love The New Danger and True Magic (his second and third album, respectively). (I haven’t gotten to either of those two albums yet, mainly because I’m pretty lazy, but also because I’m never in the mood to have either one of those discs fuck up my day.)

I've spent a long time trying to figure out why no one seems to give a damn about rappers and groups like Mos Def, A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, and the like (aside from everyone that absolutely loves the Native Tongues, of course). Part of me feels it's because a lot of folks believe that conscious hip hop is some sort of white folk phenomenon, and can't seem to wrap their heads around the idea that Black people would be mildly interested in rappers not talking about “fuckin' bitches 'til they assholes bleed” (as Biggie once said).

The other part of me realizes that people don't care about rappers without a gimmick, or rappers without some sort of major cosign. (I would imagine that De La Soul and Bill Cosby would be good names to put on your resume, but I guess I’m mistaken.) It explains why I had friends telling me about this "cool new rapper" Kanye West signed named Common that I should check out when Be dropped. But enough of that shit, let's get down to business.

An intriguing way to start the album. It does run a little long, but the buildup to the rhymes Dante spits at the end of the track works itself out well.

I was always drawn to this song, particularly the last verse after that little section of scratching. Part of what disappointed me about Mos Def’s later releases was his decline in lyrical prowess (or general laziness).

We're at track three and we already have a line swiped from Rakim. But I guess if you're going to take a line from one of the best MCs ever (one of?), you might as well use it as the hook. (It lessens your chance of fucking that part of the song up.) The rest of the joint is solid to me, and I dig the beat.

The obligatory club song, but it's a little more subdued and less raunchy (as one would expect) than the other songs that dropped in 1999. Its funny how this video got play on Rap City way back, but today, a legend like Q-Tip can't even get his video on BET's shithole of a station. Oh, how times change. (Fuck that, I’m still amazed that “Ms. Fat Booty” ended up in the ‘Buzz Bin’ on MTV.)

This one has kind of lost some of its luster for me over time in the production department, so I'm with Max on this one. The soundscape leaves much to be desired. But again, I can't ignore the lyrical performance.

This song is decent, but I always felt like it was out of place, as if it were meant for a mixtape or a Martin Lawrence movie soundtrack. It kind of reminds me of Swizz Beats, which is never a good thing. (I concur.)

7. GOT
I like the overall vibe found here, but the effort on this track sounds kind of lazy to me.

One of my favorite songs by far. This is just all around awesome. Regardless of what half of you people think about his singing, I'll take it over that autotuned shit on the radio any day. (Whereas I don’t have a problem with his singing: I’m concerned with the little attention he’s paid to hip hop as of late. Although I have to admit that if I were as busy in Hollywood as Dante is, I might not have the time for our chosen genre, either, no matter how badly Be Kind, Rewind sucked balls.)

Mos absolutely rips this one. It’s funny that he could make a song about water more interesting than half the shit that came out on Def Jam in 2008. (The Psycho Les beat also still holds up nearly a decade later. Fuck, I feel old again.)

Kind of preachy and pretentious. (Also pliable, preposterous, and some other ‘p’ words.) I always kind of found it both funny and mildly ironic (mildly?) that Mos could make a song like this, then turn around and bite the Red Hot Chili Peppers a few tracks later.

FUCK THE EMPIRE. 100% fire. Ayatollah did his thing on this one in a major way. (I’m telling you, every single Mos Def and Talib Kweli reunion track has paled in comparison to this one, the originator.)

I like this song, but I'm sure many will probably hate it, just like Max seemed to. As an aside, what the hell has Vinia Mojica done besides this and De La Soul’s (brilliant) "A Roller Skating Jam Named 'Saturdays'”? Anyone? (Oh, she’s put in some work, mainly on songs by other so-called conscious rappers like Talib Kweli and Common, but, oddly, she’s also worked with the Boot Camp Clik, The Juggaknots, Big Bird, Pete Rock, and Carrie Underwood.)

This would be my favorite rap song on the album (I felt the need to qualify that as such only because of “Umi Says”.) I really like the second verse and love the last one. Unfortunately, the only place I've heard the original with those uncleared samples is on YouTube: that version is definitely worth a listen as well. (It’s also readily available on the Interweb, for those of you two that remain interested.)

I listened to this one frequently when I first got Black On Both Sides, but I regularly skip it now when it pops up on iTunes. You might want to do the same.

15. MR. N---A (FEAT Q-TIP)
I enjoyed this song thoroughly, as I found it pretty humorous overall. I always liked Tribe’s "Sucka N---a" off Midnight Marauders, so that might have had an affect on how I feel about this one. PS: I hope I'm not the only one who totally didn't get the Nicolas Cage joke from Max's review. (No comment.)

Another very dope song, and a great way to end the vocal portion of the album. DJ Premier laces the chorus with his usual scratched vocal sections from a range of other artists. Apparently this is one of Primo's favorites. (Really? Primo has made much better beats that the one he crafted for Dante. Perhaps he’s just proud of the fact that he can tell his children he used to work with conscious artists, whereas now all he can brag about is how he made a song for Curtis Jackson, which Curtis rejected, but still found its way onto the Interweb anyway.)

Some good vibes on this one to carry us out.

FINAL THOUGHTS: Black On Both Sides is a very solid debut disc by one of my favorite lyricists. I really enjoyed this album from beginning to end, save for a few bumps in the road. Ultimately, he would go on to release The New Danger (an album with some very good songs on it, but also some godawful ones), and the "please, set me free from this shit-hole of a label" death knell that is True Magic. In my eyes, this is the magnum opus of Mos Def's career thus far, and it definitely delivers. Let's hope he can make a solid comeback with The Ecstatic, set to drop in 2009. So far, I like what I hear on YouTube.

BUY OR BURN? This should come as no surprise - go out and buy this one; it's definitely worth the pittance you'll have to spend on it on Amazon. A 17 track album with only 3 meh tracks? Good deal.

Best Tracks: "Hip Hop", "Umi Says", "Brooklyn", "Mathematics", "Mr. N---a", "Know That"


(Be sure to leave some comments below, and for those that are intrigued, here’s my original review for Black On Both Sides.)


  1. again, appreciate you posting this. and i agree, "saturdays" is one of my favorite de la songs by far!

  2. I'm sorry but this album is on the fence. Only 1/3rd of tracks bang, "Umi Says" is too long. "New World Water" has a lazy beat. However DJ Premier has a point liking "Mathematics" his scratched chorus whips ass. To date the album version of "Brooklyn" sucks compared to the original.

    "Rock N Roll" is the truth though.

  3. karl, excellent writeup! Your diatribe on the disregard for more socially conscious rappers and the Native Tongues by the 'mainstream' is on point.
    Also, your taste in certain types of music (from your opinions on most of the tracks on BoBS) seems to align more with mine than Max's does (sorry Max!).

    Max, keep posting up karl's reviews when you can please...

  4. AnonymousJune 15, 2010

    Good review. ''Hip Hop'' is so fucking great.
    This album is a masterpiece!

  5. Doctor Lyrical Here!,

    Thank you so much for providing such a thorough review, we have included your review on our Mos Def Bio Page (www.lyricalsurgeon.com/Mos-Def-Bio.html) and we also wanted to inform you that we dissected "Umi Says" a great track that is inspirational and uplifting! (www.lyricalsurgeon.com/Mos-Def-Umi-Says-Black-on-Both-Sides.html)

    Much Respect and when you need that ear prescription filled come by and see the doctor!

    Our office is located at www.lyricalsurgeon.com

    We have indy Hip Hop ground Atmosphere and Ice Cube in the Waiting Room right now!

  6. AnonymousJuly 10, 2011

    Funny checking back here over two years later, linked to your blog (and this post) on my blog. Keep on doing what you do, Max.