In the grand game of king of the hill that is hiphop, an undue emphasis has always been placed on the comeback record. Some artists, in fact, come back before they’re even gone: Before his self-imposed retirement, Jay-Z made not only The Blueprint and The Blueprint2: The Gift & the Curse, but also The Blueprint 2.1. LL Cool J was Bigger and Deffer just two albums into his surprisingly long career. The Fat Boys had hardly let the mike cool down after their self-titled debut when they released The Fat Boys Are Back, and a mere three years later, the group announced it was Coming Back Hard Again—even though it had put out a record every year since its inception.
It’s been a little longer since Mos Def’s landmark solo debut, 1999’s diverse, consciousness-raising Black on Both Sides, so perhaps it actually is time for The New Danger. The obvious reason for the Brooklyn-based MC’s recording hiatus has been the success he’s found treading the boards, not only on Broadway, but also on television and the big screen. The not so obvious reason is that this once-upon-a-time headiest of heads just isn’t that interested in hiphop anymore. Sure, there are enough beats and samples to ensure that The New Danger will get filed next to M.O.P., but most of the music is played by the Def-fronted band Black Jack Johnson, a supergroup comprising former Bad Brain Dr. Know on guitar, Funkadelicist Bernie Worrell on keyboards, and ex–Living Colour members Doug Winbush and Will Calhoun on bass and drums, respectively. If you don’t get that something’s changed, Def points it out for you on “Ghetto Rock”: “Yes, we are so ghetto/Yes, we are rock and motherfucking roll.”
The name Black Jack Johnson is ostensibly a tribute to the pioneering black heavyweight champion. But it’s also meant to recall A Tribute to Jack Johnson, Miles Davis’ 1970 fusion classic, one of the first records to break through the jazz/rock divide. The New Danger isn’t quite so ambitious. Its polygeneric approach is intended to offer both an alternative to the homogeneity of modern pop music and a history lesson on all the genres that helped to shape hiphop. In fact, there’s a lot here reminiscent of Gil Scott-Heron’s incendiary protohiphop of the early ’70s, from the coffeehouse percussion of album-opener “The Boogie Man Song” to the airy woodwind accompaniment on “Sex, Love & Money.” Of course, lyrics such as the latter’s “You play it quiet but in private that ass is mine, huh/We body-rockin’ the last of time” probably wouldn’t have made the cut for “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.”
That’s the thing: Though the album’s genre-hopping is high-minded in concept, it’s often halfassed in execution. “Zimzallabim,” for example, picks up Mos Def’s attempt to reclaim various black musics for black people right where it left off on Both Sides’ “Rock and Roll,” which took aim at Fred Durst and his ball-capped mob for co-opting hiphop. (“I ain’t tryin’ to dis/But I don’t be tryin’ to fuck with Limp Bizkit.”) Yet the newer track is effective neither as hard rock nor as hiphop. It starts out with some bite, with some dense riffage that could be Metallica at its funkiest, but by the end, Black Jack Johnson is just muddling through a toothless grind. And you have to wonder if Def’s agenda remains relevant four years after Chocolate Starfish and the Hotdog Flavored Water—proof enough that rap-rock is a battle from which no race will emerge the victor.
Though Mos Def’s obsession with rap-rock may be hard to comprehend, his criticism of the institutional racism of the music industry definitely isn’t. The most acidic track on The New Danger is “The Rape Over,” essentially an answer song to Jay-Z’s “The Takeover.” Over the same Doors riff Kanye West provided for Jay back in 2001, Def takes the business to task. Whereas Jay-Z bragged about how his crew was “runnin’ this rap shit,” Mos Def reminds us that “white men is runnin’ this rap shit.” Unfortunately, he doesn’t stop there, going on to say that “quasi-homosexuals is runnin’ this rap shit.” Apparently, the socially progressive hiphop the rapper established his career with is so 1999.
And working with West is so 2004. Hiphop’s producer of the moment didn’t just repeat himself for “The Rape Over”; he also jiggered up the Hair-sampling “Sunshine,” the New Danger track with the best chance of breaking into the Rap City top 10. Taken together, the two songs are as good an illustration as any of Mos Def’s conflicted relationship with hiphop, of the problems he has with its hedonistic, consumerist drive. “I don’t hate players/I don’t love the game,” he exclaims on “Sunshine.” “I’m the shot clock way above the game/To be point-blank with you/Motherfuck the game.”
Back in the Both Sides era, Mos Def had no difficulty finding social as well as music-biz ills to address. But during wartime and in a heated election year, he appears almost out of touch. “War” isn’t about what you think it might be: “Palestine, Kosovo, Kashmir/No different than the avenues right here,” Def suggests. “An increase in the murder rate each year/Paramilitary unit keep the streets clear.” Maybe, but these days there’s urban violence and then there’s urban violence—and Brooklyn has yet to deal with suicide bombers or ethnic cleansing. Similarly, on The New Danger’s overlong, somnabulistic tribute to Marvin Gaye, “Modern Marvel,” Mos Def earnestly ponders whether “when he sang ‘Mercy, Mercy’ did he really know/That decades later we’d still be killing folks?” Making that wide-eyed remark is as silly as wondering if the “We Are the World” gang is surprised hunger still exists. It’s hard to believe that these lines are from the same guy who gave us “New World Water,” whose politics still sound relevant today.
It’s not accurate to characterize The New Danger as a complete drag. There are, after all, some good tracks—especially the Shuggie Otis duet “Blue Black Jack,” on which Worrell provides some nice loungey atmosphere. But the album falls far short of its goals, and its ragtag feel makes you suspect that Mos Def made his own comeback record simply out of respect for hiphop convention. If so, let’s hope it was good practice: Next time around, he’s going to need it.CP
Mos Def performs at 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 8, at the 9:30 Club, 815 V St. NW. For more information, call (202) 393-0930.