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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