Throwback Thursday Review: Black on Both Sides | Mos Def

BY CHRIS MONTANA ★★★★★

Every Thursday we will be reviewing albums that are considered “classic”. With the 15th anniversary of this legendary album coming up next month, it is only appropriate that we start this new feature off with this legendary hip hop album.

If you know anything about hip hop, you know who Mos Def is. Today he goes by Yasiin Bey, but when he was still releasing music he was Mos Def; so that’s how we’ll refer to him. Black on Both Sides was his first solo album, and arguably his best; while an argument can be made that his 2009 The Ecstatic or 1998’s Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star were better. However in my opinion, this album was his best work. In 1996 Mos Def signed to Rawkus Records, which has signed such big names as Eminem, El-P, Talib Kweli, and Pharoahe Monch. The first we really heard of Mos was on Rawkus’s label album Soundbombing where he appeared several times and was impressive and was a signal of great things to come. A year later, he and Talib Kweli dropped their acclaimed group album in 1998; and the year after that, Mos Def dropped his solo debut Black on Both Sides

 

Hip Hop– Mos goes in hard on this track; he talks about the importance of hip hop. Mos doesn’t normally have a outlet or way to voice his opinions on things where enough people will listen, but when he, or anyone, puts it to music; he is able to convey his message much more effectively and have it spread farther. That is why hip hop is so important.

Ms Fat Booty– This track samples Aretha Franklin’s “One Step Ahead” for the hook and you can her croons in the background throughout the song. Mos raps about his experience with this girl throughout three different scenes. He was so mesmerized by her incredible ass that he just had to talk to her, but when he asked to dance she left. Next thing he knows he’s at a party with Q-Tip and his friends and this chick is there too. They eventually hit it off and you know ya boi Mos, in his words, “smashed it like an Idaho potato”.

Do It Now– This is one of the best songs on the album, Mos and Busta go rhyme for rhyme throughout the track and its simply incredible. This is especially amazing because Mos Def’s lyrics were on point, per as usual; but this was 1999, so Busta was on the top of his game as well. After, and including, the first hook; Busta and Mos drop 8 bars and then send it to the other one to drop 8 of their own and they keep going back and forth and the exchange is glorious.

Know That– I feel like I can say this about 5 or 6 tracks on this album, but this might be my favorite. We get an amazing Black Star collabo that is backed by a beat that is driven by a simple boom bap beat along with a Dionne Warwick sample. Keep in mind this was 3 years before Kweli dropped his solo debut and a year before his group with Hi-Tek, Reflection Eternal, dropped their debut; and yet Kweli’s rhymes on this song make him sound like a veteran. The chemistry between these two is incredible, and it’s really too bad we only got one Black Star album.

Brooklyn– Fascinating track that is broken up into three parts and contains three different beats. Throughout the track he raps about his hometown of Brooklyn. In the third part he samples the beat of BK’s finest’s “Who Shot Ya?”. He talks about how much harder life is in Brooklyn and how you are really unique if you’re from there. Another for sure highlight on this album.

Mr. Nigga– We get a Q-Tip feature on this one, but it’s only a hook; nonetheless very effective and awesome. This track features a very chill Mos, as opposed to his pretty aggressive flow and sound. Which is surprising since this song tackles the topic of how no matter how successful you are or presentable you are, if you’re an African American, you are simply just not treated the same as if you were the exact same person, except with white skin. You are treated by everyone as just another “Mr. Nigga”, a stereotypical Black person who no matter their accomplishments, can’t shake the stereotypes. Racism is still alive and roaring, while it might not be as clear cut as in decades past, there is still a huge problem of subtle racism, and it’s 2014; this album came out in 1999…

Mathematics– No exaggeration this might be my favorite beat of all time. Premier just nails all the scratches and samples on this one. I mean look at this list of what is sampled to create the hook for this masterpiece:

  • “The Mighty Mos Def…” (from Mos Def’s “Body Rock”)
  • “It’s simple mathematics” (from Fat Joe’s “John Blaze”)
  • “Check it out” (The Lady of Rage’s vocals from Snoop Dogg’s “For All My Niggaz & Bitches”)
  • “I revolve around science…” (Ghostface Killah’s vocals from Raekwon’s “Criminology”)
  • “What are we talking about here…” (dialogue from the film Ghostbusters)
  • “Do your math..” (from Erykah Badu’s “On & On”)
  • “One, two, three, four” (from James Brown’s “Funky Drummer”)
  • The instrumental from “Baby, I Want You” by The Fatback Band is also sampled

Just BA NANAS stuff right there from Premo. And not to be outshined by an incredible beat, Mos spits some fire flames conscious raps. It contains lyrics that attack several social and political issues and uses the line “it’s all mathematics” to imply and encourage the listener to “add it all up” and realize what is going in society; all the facts are there, you just need to add it up to undersand. Various numbers are referenced all throughout the song and he even rhymes statistics in numerical order. He tackles the issue of how different it is being white as compare to black in America, and he encourages African Americans to do their math so they don’t become another statistic. Powerful.

 

This album is mainly Mos Def himself just rapping like crazy, but when there are features they are very effective and kill it. Busta, Q-Tip, Talib Kweli, and Vinia Mojica all do their thing and do it well. The album focuses on conscious lyrics, live instrumentation, and very very very effective samples. I can’t decipher everything on this album, but do yourself a favor and make it a priority to sit down and listen to this album with Rap Genius open; I guarantee you will have a great time. If you are a fan of Lupe Fiasco’s Food & Liquor, Lupe Fiasco’s The Cool, Common’s Like Water for Chocolate, Tribe’s Low End Theory, or conscious hip hop, or even just hip hop in general you will love and be blown away by this album.

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