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Mos Def, The Ecstatic

Hip-hop that looks beyond the ’hood is back

That the creative stamina of the average rap act - even discounting the possibility of an untimely death - is so easily sapped makes a certain amount of sense. Rap is all about burning your creation myth into the wider consciousness as quickly as possible, arriving in a blaze rather than lingering on in the half-light. Furthermore, it is hard to think of any other musical form where talent, energy and originality are consumed at such a frantic rate, where the themes are so narrow yet the lyrical mass so staggeringly dense.

Little wonder most rappers fail to stay focused on the day job long enough to establish a hefty body of quality work. While uppity pop stars have chafed against their innate disposability, worrying about dubious notions such as "legacy" and "posterity", rap artists stay true to their entrepreneurial instincts: say your piece, get rich quick while the going's good, and move on to the happier hunting grounds of film, TV, fashion, or label management, perhaps with the odd quickie album thrown in. Diversifying, endorsing, rebranding - it's all showbiz, after all. The downside for those of us who, rather old-fashionedly, want good rap musicians to keep making good rap records is that the law of diminishing returns becomes inevitable.

Which brings us to Dante Smith, aka Mos Def. In the decade since his startlingly original solo debut, Black on Both Sides, Brooklyn's socially conscious rapper has ambled down a well-trodden path. Sporadic, disjointed album releases - culminating in 2006's terribly lacklustre True Magic - have played second fiddle to an increasingly successful acting career on stage and in film. A co-starring role in Michel Gondry's Be Kind Rewind and Emmy and Golden Globe nominations suggested he had his eyes fixed on celluloid fame.

There's no shortage of evidence proving that most rappers never fully return from this kind of exile, which makes the sheer verve and quality of The Ecstatic all the more wonderful to behold. A sample of Malcolm X's 1964 speech to the Oxford Union - riffing on "change", the buzzword du jour - leads into "Supermagic", a crackling opening statement which, in just 150 seconds, manages to cram in references to everything from the celebrated Turkish musician Selda Bagcan to Mary Poppins. It's an exhilarating introduction and a firm declaration of intent. This is a politicised album with a truly global outlook, not simply in terms of the wealth of musical touchstones - samples come from sources as diverse as Ihsan al-Munzer, Banda Black Rio, Fela Kuti and Bobby Hebb - but also in its willingness to engage with the wider world, rather than indulge in pettifogging feuds and join-the-dots braggadocio.

Islamic influences abound. Half the album consistently turns to the east in words and in music, and the songs are peppered with haunting muezzin wails, Arab-sounding strings, and swooping samples from Madlib's Beat Konducta in India series. On "Auditorium", the guest star, Slick Rick, raps from the perspective of a US soldier in Iraq, met not with glory or thanks, but by a child saying: "Get the fuck outta my country."

Later, the intensity eases, and laid-back retro beats mingle with xylophones and horns. "Pistola" builds a gorgeous soul groove on the bones of the Intruders' 1968 hit "Cowboys to Girls", while the brief but beautiful "Priority" shimmers with sweet piano and heavenly trumpet and has a message to match: "Peace before everything,/ God before anything,/Love before anything,/Real before everything."

And on it goes, ebbing and flowing: the dusting of dancehall on "Working Comp"; the stoned samba of "No Hay Nada Mas"; the electro-bombast of "Life in Marvelous Times", all overlaid with Mos Def's customary fragmented rhymes and scat singing. With a considerable debt due to the production flair of Preservation, Madlib, Oh No, Mr Flash and the late J Dilla, The Ecstatic unfolds into something dazzling in its stylistic reach yet completely convincing in its sense of unity.

The album peaks with "History", a thrilling two-hander featuring his old Black Star comrade Talib Kweli, which somewhat ruefully acknowledges the decline in Mos Def's musical standards since Black on Both Sides. "Ten years ago we made history," chides Kweli, as Mos Def adds: "Don't call this a comeback in particular." But a comeback it most certainly is, and all the more glorious for being so unexpected.

The Ecstatic fizzes with energy and ideas and is open to the world, both musically and intellectually. To call it a contender for hip-hop album of the year is to damn it with faint praise. It's simply one of the most thrilling, fully realised records of 2009.



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This article first appeared in the 31 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The next 100 years

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis