h, how the mighty Mos have fallen! We’ve been through this before, albeit with far more positive results: bedwetting backpackers rally around great-granola-hope, only to have loyalties rewarded by prolonged absences, pussy-whipped bohemia, or an acting career that, wouldn’t you know it, actually took off.
But where it would seem the Roots and (pending further investigation into this GAP commercial business) Common have bounced back from their trespasses, Mos Def has slipped further into an abyss of apathy. He’s got scripts to read and poets with whom to jam and his third solo album, True Magic, reflects this; it’s as boring and uninspired as any rap album of recent memory.
Don’t believe the gripe: The New Danger may have disappointed the hundreds of people that had waited five long years for Black on Both Sides II, but with its fearless approach and unpredictable character it revealed Mos Def the rapper’s greatest strength: his maturity. The New Danger was grown man business (and long before Hov started bragging about not doing things 38-year-olds shouldn’t be doing anyway): Shuggie Otis blues licks, Bad Brains thrash, 90s Bed-Stuy hip-hop, nine-minute Marvin-exalting epics, and a little rapping sprinkled on top. It was progressive without being contrived, committed without being reckless, and a lot better than it’s been given credit for.
But True Magic is a deliberate retreat, a regression, an unexpected return to straight hip-hop for all those disappointed by The New Danger’s eccentric eclecticism. This shouldn’t have been so terrible; Mos Def in his prime was arguably one of the best rappers alive. But time and Tinseltown have taken their toll and truth be told, Pretty Flaco’s either lost a step over the years or he’s hoping True Magic will appease everyone so he and Dr. No can get back to playing Texas Hold’em at Alan Rickman’s crib. Either way it’s not a good look.
Over moody anonymous production from Preservation and Minnesota and moody anonymous-sounding production from Rich Harrison and the Neptunes, Mos Def sounds positively lifeless and distant, rocking the same flow since the one-nine-nine-nine and offering nothing he hadn’t already perfected in the one-nine-nine-eight. The album’s two most effective tracks, the portentous “Crime and Medicine” where Mos opines “the national pastime is victimless crime” and “Dollar Day,” his obligatory post-Katrina meditation jack their beats from GZA’s “Liquid Swords” and Juvenile’s “Nolia Clap” respectively. That’s on some mixtape bullshit. The rest of the album, the dreadfully outdated and misguided “Thug Is a Drug,” the Casio-riffic “A Ha,” the embarrassingly aimless “Napoleon Dynamite,” seems like more of a collection of New Danger outtakes and Soundbombing rejects long past their expiration date than a focused set of new material. Hey, maybe that’s what this really is. No one is saying very much.
True Magic was released on December 29, a Friday, like a burned Memorex you find beneath a pile of towels in your trunk: clear case, no booklet, no cover artwork. There are no singles (nothing on here could really qualify), thus there are no videos (unless you include YouTube footage of Mos being arrested, which we do not). There’s no press; I’d be surprised there was even a review of True Magic if I hadn’t personally just written this one. But Mos Def doesn’t really care, Geffen doesn’t really care, and we shouldn’t either. That Black Star reunion album you’ve been waiting eight years for isn’t going to happen, being best friends with Russell Simmons and Kanye West can’t help get a decent beat … but 16 Blocks premieres on Cinemax this Saturday, January 13, at 10:00 p.m. ET/PT. Also airs January 15, 17, 21, 25, 30. Know that.
Reviewed by: Barry Schwartz
Reviewed on: 2007-01-09