September 14, 2010

Mos Def - True Magic (December 29, 2006)


Mos Def's third solo album True Magic has a strange story behind it, one which is so off-kilter that it's a surprise that it even exists.  What follows is the short version of that tale.


The artist also known as The Italian Job's Dante Smith took time out of his busy acting schedule to lay some tracks down in a Canadian recording studio in 2006, two years after his sophomore effort, The New Danger, was met with critical scorn.  However, rumor has it that Mos Def was unhappy with his record contract, and he was determined to do whatever it took to secure his release, up to and including dropping an album that in no way fits in with the rest of the man's output.


True Magic, formerly titled Tru3 Magic back when Mos Def still gave a fuck, was rushed to stored at the very end of December in 2006, just in time for Geffen Records to consider it a tax write-off.  Not that they spent that much money on the project to begin with: fans who flocked to their local record stores on the release date were shocked by the album's lack of cover art and liner notes.  Indeed, True Magic came packaged in a plastic jewel case with a sticker on the back, instructing listeners to visit a website to find out something, anything, about the album's production.  Because Mos Def is what is known as a "conscious" rapper, multiple excuses were made for the simplicity of the packaging: some even believed that Dante was trying to do his part in protecting the environment (um, he packed the disc in fucking plastic, so that wasn't it).


The fourteen tracks on True Magic were also surprising to Mos Def's fans, as they all consisted of what seemed to be incomplete songs.  So the idea started floating around that this version of True Magic was a sampler that Geffen Records put out in order to gauge the public's interest in the project.  MTV even posted a news story in which an anonymous source claimed that the "full" version of True Magic, complete with the traditional trappings of liner notes, album artwork, and actual songs, was scheduled to hit stores a few months later.


Geffen Records had to issue a press release that basically said: "Nope.  This is it.  You guys are fucked."


So here we are.  True Magic was Mos Def's final album for Geffen Records, and it sounds like a rush job intended solely for getting the man out of his contract.  None of the tracks were handled with care: hell, most of them sound unfinished.  Two of them lift well-known hip hop beats in such a manner that Mos Def may as well be tried and convicted of plagiarism.  One of the songs only contains two fucking sentences, repeated over and over again.  Producers Preservation and Minnesota, along with others, attempted to justify their paychecks by providing the music to Mos Def's mental breakdown, but Dante fails to comply, wasting their instrumentals like a jackass billionaire lighting up his Cuban cigars with hundred dollar bills while insisting on using a check at the grocery store.


And yet, there are people that like this crapshoot much more than The New Danger, which I genuinely liked, but I'm aware that most of you thought I was being ironic (best case scenario) or that I have terrible taste (worst case).


Well, explain this shit, fuckers.


1. TRUE MAGIC
Oddly, Mos Def's third album kicks off with a title track that sounds like every other mainstream rap song out there, thanks to DJ Epik and Mark Knoxx's generic instrumental. Pretty Flaco mumbles his way through two verses that you couldn't force yourself to concentrate on even if someone put a gun to your head, making what is essentially a rap album intro even more excruciating than usual. Having the track fade out at the end and then surprising listeners by bringing the beat back might have worked had the instrumental been something worth bringing back in the first place. Personally, I would have left it on the side of the highway. You know, like a normal person.


2. UNDENIABLE
You're forgiven if you thought the previous track was called “Undeniable”; I was a bit confused myself, as Mos kept using that word throughout the “chorus”. He does the same thing on here: I think one of his friends bet him fifty bucks that he wouldn't use the title word fifty-plus times on True Magic. This track featured one of the more creative ways to sample “Message From A Black Man” from The Whatnauts, but so many artists have used it (both before and since) that any heft the track may have carried back in 2006 is diluted. So far, this shit is making me long for The New Danger.


3. U R THE ONE
What exactly were you trying to do with True Magic, Mos? Do you even remember at this point? Because this kind of shit wasn't on anybody's wish list.


4. THUG IS A DRUG
Even though “True Magic” led directly into “Undeniable”, neither of those songs sounded coherent together. That's the biggest problem I have with True Magic: it's sequenced like a greatest hits compilation from an alternate universe where music generally sucks. On here, Mos Def attempts a violent take sprinkled with social commentary, but it sounds pretty awful. Even The New Danger had more fascinating songs than this throwaway disc of half-thought-out concepts. No wonder the label didn't even bother with any sort of marketing budget: why waste more money than they absolutely had to?


5. CRIME & MEDICINE
Pretentious as shit. I'm okay with Dante jacking GZA's “Liquid Swords” beat wholesale (I just hope Prince Rakeem received a royalty check), and his verse is relatively inoffensive, in that the rhymes themselves aren't great but they also aren't annoying. No, the lone characteristic of “Crime & Medicine” that sets me off is the female voice that says the phrase “strange times” right before Mos begins his verse. For some reason, I can't fucking stand that shit. His singing was a weirdly interesting take on the GZA's original hook, but for the most part, this made me angry.


6. A HA
I don't care what some of the other critics believe: Mos Def most certainly did not intend True Magic to challenge your ideals of what a hip hop albums was supposed to sound like. He merely rushed fourteen tracks out in an effort to remove himself from his label, where he was unhappy. How is this kind of shit supposed to challenge anything? It contains a laugh track, for fuck's sake.


7. DOLLAR DAY (SURPRISE, SURPRISE)
Mos Def's tribute to those affected by the events of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 takes a strange turn when he adapts New Orleans artists UTP's “Nolia Clap” for his own purposes. Dante's criticisms about former President Bush's (lack of a) response to the destruction is undercut by the ironic use of the original beat from the Juvenile-led trio's song, which was more likely to make people dance and celebrate life's excesses than make them upset with politicians. Flaco has something worth saying on here, and this was a better outlet than calling out Bush's stupid ass on live television (*cough* Kanye West *cough*), but this still sounded a little off. And very mixtape-ish, not unlike “Crime & Medicine”.


8. NAPOLEON DYNAMITE
Mos titled this two-minute “song” after one of the most overrated cult movies of our time (is it really a “cult” movie if millions of fucking people have suffered through it?), but it has nothing to do with Jon Heder's character. In fact, I had a problem following Dante's narrative, which I think was a crime tale told without much context. And then he ends the “song” by saying “Moving on”, lending more credence to my theory that True Magic was recorded in a twelve-hour period in a haze of Patron and skunky Canadian weed.

9. THERE IS A WAY
When Dante tells listeners that this song consists of only “two lyrics”, he isn't kidding. The entire song is made up of two sentences repeated ad nauseum: “There is a way no matter what they say” and “Don't give up, Don't give in”. Which makes this an easy song to memorize, but can this really be called a “song”? This would have been far more appropriate as an outro. Sigh.


10. SUN, MOON, STARS
Meh.


11. MURDER OF A TEENAGE LIFE
This is the most complete track on True Magic thus far, and it still sounds unfinished. Over an uncharacteristically synth-free and somber Neptunes beat, Mighty Mos spits about the loss of childhood, both literally and figuratively. This wasn't a very good song: its execution is lacking severely. But it's still the closest to a regular Mos Def song that you'll actually hear on True Magic. Groan.


12. FAKE BONANZA
Preservation's beat, which may only sound like a Spaghetti Western in its execution because the song is, in fact, called “Fake Bonanza”, sounds decent enough (although it's looped to death), and Dante feels at ease telling his story, but then, with two minutes left on the clock, Mos just evaporates, and the song continues well beyond its natural ending, and when you peel away all of the layers, the track is left naked and embarrassed. This was a prime example of a decent song getting fucked over by Mos Def's lack of precision. Which wasn't entirely by design, no matter what you may believe.


13. PERFECT TIMING
Mos sings his own interpretation of rap lyrics from other, much better songs, which doesn't make for much of a track, but was an interesting experiment. Dante's piano-driven beat was also appropriately haunting. But I can't recommend that anybody listen to this track ever.


14. LIFETIME
I liked the music underneath Dante's crooning vocals, but there wasn't enough variation to justify the over five minutes of your life that this song will occupy, should you choose to listen to it. But I have to say that Preservation's beat was still thoroughly soothing, and Mos Def worked with it well. Some of this is cheesy (mainly the chorus), but “Lifetime” is the best song on an album that has no idea what to do with itself, now that it's awake so goddamn early. And it's the final song on the album. Funny, that.


FINAL THOUGHTS: What the fuck did I just listen to? It's as though Mos Def was playing a prank on his audience: True Magic plays better as an art installation than it does as an album in any musical genre, and it is incredibly hard to actually listen to. With few exceptions, Dante fails to stick with any topic long enough to wrap a coherent song around it: True Magic is filled with incomplete thoughts that weren't necessarily worth having in the first place. A couple of the songs sound okay, but Mos Def should be called out for his blatant theft of the “Liquid Swords” and “Nolia Clap” beats, which make True Magic sound even more like an afterthought, in a “Hey, I recorded these two songs for mixtapes, but I need to fill some space, so let's just put them on here, why the fuck not?”-kind of way. I'm surprised that there are so many True Magic supporters out there while The New Danger is universally reviled: True Magic fucking sucks balls. At least The New Danger was focused. Fuck this album.


BUY OR BURN? Um, didn't you just see that I wrote the phrase “fuck this album”?


BEST TRACKS: “Lifetime”


-Max


RELATED POSTS:
The other Mos Def albums I've written about work with varying degrees of success. Read about them by clicking here.

5 comments:

  1. Never heard this album but that was a pretty comical review.

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  2. Haha, I can actually see Dante setting an alarm, entering the studio. Rhyme for an hour or two and then daring whoever was also present to turn his incoherent vocals into an album one could possibly release on a major label :p

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  3. I thought The New Danger was entertaining as. I just love the man's charisma, along with Pharoahe Monch, who is just as good, in fact probably better. Never heard this, and never intend to! I heard that Gza bitten song, and thought that it was a bit... purposeless. If he did release an album of this calibur to escape his label, why not he just save himself the effort and release a greatest hits? Anyway, thank you for the constant reviews, they are very entertaining as always.

    Blake

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  4. LOL, it's not like this album took much effort to make either... But a Greatest Hits would've saved him from this embarrassment.

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  5. it was a dope collection of songs...you're just a whiny overcritical bitch...

    now...moving on, to think about a better and brighter morn....

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