Black On Both Sides

Mos Def

Rawkus Records, 1999

REVIEW BY: Sean McCarthy


Black On Both Sides can be best described as a manifesto. Mos Def crams so many concepts and genres into his 70-minute opus, yet the album remains uncluttered and breezy, despite its double-album length. The topics for Black On Both Sides are familiar: the potential demise of hip-hop, infighting among emcees and the state of hip-hop, yet Def lays out answers so clear and simple, it’s amazing that other artists hadn’t come to the same conclusion.

“So next time you ask … where hip hop is going, ask yourself 'where am I going?' -- and you’ll get a clear idea,” kicks off the lead track “Fear Not Of Man.”

A drinking buddy of mine pointed out that one thing two seemingly polarizing genres, country and rap, share is the ability of their artists to produce genuinely good actors. For Mos Def, he has not only gave strong performances in movies (my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 Bamboozled and Monster’s Ball), he also conquered the theatre stage with the Pulitzer Prize-winning Topdog/Underdog. His discipline in selecting roles best suited for him was evident throughout Black On Both Sides. The neo-soul “Love” and “Speed Law” make great use of Def’s nasal delivery. The guest performances, kept to a minimum with Q-Tip and Busta Rhymes making appearances, genuinely enhance the songs rather than just add star power to an album.

Lyric-wise, Black On Both Sides is an album that will have you nodding your head even if you don’t buy into some of Def’s more provocative songs.  “Elvis Presley ain’t got no soul (hell no) … You may dig the on the Rolling Stones, but they ain’t come up with that shit on their own…” Def sings on the rasta-turned-thrasher rave-up “Rock N Roll.” True, Presley and the Stones took liberties, but originals like Chuck Berry and Little Richard had their influences as well. Still, years before it was the norm to dis Fred Durst, Def lashes out “I ain’t trying to diss, but I don’t be trying to f**k with Limp Bizkit.”

Like The Roots and Blackalicious, Def’s music is known more for its message than hooks. However, Black On Both Sides is arguably the most accessible album of the “cerebral rap” genre. The hooks on “Know That” and “Hip Hop” are so dang catchy that it's criminal these songs didn’t become radio classics.

Black On Both Sides is a definite love letter to New York. Along with frequently name-dropping some of Def’s beloved New York peers, the inside of the CD displays a beautiful skyline of New York City, complete with the iconic Twin Towers. Def would take years to make his second album, The New Danger, an album that was more confrontational than Black On Both Sides, but was regarded as a artistic and commercial disappointment. Even if The New Danger steers Def into a career in theatre or movies, his debut album has already cemented his status as a hip-hop innovator.

Rating: A-

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© 2006 Sean McCarthy and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Rawkus Records, and is used for informational purposes only.