Over the years, Mos Def has earned the reputation of being hip-hop’s underground Renaissance man. In the past three years alone, he’s dabbled successfully in theater, television, film, and poetry. With his highly anticipated sophomore album, “The New Danger,” Mos proves himself worthy of the title. The album is a surprising mix of music genres, drawing from blues, Metallica-inspired hard rock, soul, and the early work of hip-hop’s best and brightest.
While there is nothing revolutionary about approaching hip-hop from multiple musical perspectives (think Andre 3000’s “The Love Below”), Mos Def differs from his peers in his ability to stretch hip-hop’s potential to the limit, so much so that it eventually begins to spill over into other music genres. “The New Danger” is a stunning experimental album that knocks down the walls between genres and redefines hip-hop as a meeting point where all other music forms converge into one.
The album begins with the dreamy “The Boogie Man Song.” As a piano softly tinkers away in the background, Mos proves himself to be (among other things) an above-average singer. The song has the spirit of an improved jazz session. The impromptu feeling of the song is a clear indication that this is not b-boy lyricist of “Black On Both Sides,” his classic 1999 debut.
While the first track eases the listener into Mos Def’s hip-hop experiment, the second shatters this subtle invitation. Out of nowhere, the unapologetic blaring of a heavy metal guitar riff fills the speakers. The strictly instrumental track seems to be a loud statement that rock music belongs on a hip-hop album. Several songs on the album, most notably “Zinzallabim” and “War” are infused with distorted guitars, courtesy of Mos Def’s band Black Jack Johnson. In fact, the final few seconds of “War” could have been ripped straight from a System of a Down track.
Set against the blaring rock tracks are the more subtle experiments in soul and blues. “Blue Black Jack” is a blues track filled with improvised guitar and Mos’ howling vocals. The Kanye West-produced track “Sunshine” is a similarly impressive homage to early soul and funk. The album’s other West-produced track, “The Rape Over,” is less impressive. Because it’s a response to a dis-track (Jay-Z’s “The Take Over,” which was itself a response to Nas) it would fit much better on a mix-tape than an album.
Yet in drawing from his precursors in blues, soul, and early rap, Mos gives a gracious nod to his predecessors, while also looking forward to a hip-hop future that embraces its earliest pioneers. “The New Danger” requires concentration to fully appreciate Mos Def’s agenda, which seems to be proving hip-hop’s malleability. In one album, Mos moves between hard-core rock, flighty jazz, gritty blues, and bass heavy beats. If this is all in the span of one album, imagine what can happen in a career that has already conquered underground hip-hop with “Both Sides” and “Black Star,” Mos Def’s celebrated collaboration with Talib Kweli.