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The second coming of Mos Def 

The real Mos returns with The Ecstatic after a decade of playing it safe

Mos Def’s latest album, The Ecstatic (Downtown), is a return-to-form hip-hop opus, a simultaneously breezy and substantive fun-house ride that is a lock for critical year-end lists. Featuring beats from folks like J Dilla, Madlib and Oh No (Madlib’s younger brother), it does exactly what a Mos Def album should do — walk the line between old-school romance and modern, frenetic vitality.

It came just in time, too. The middle of the decade was not kind to Mos, who had somehow morphed from hip-hop’s savior into a hack actor and musical dilettante who had forsaken his talents. Even worse, he had become “safe.” Quoth the satirical blog Stuff White People Like, from last year: “He is everything that white people dream about: authentic (‘he’s from Brooklyn!’), funny (‘he was on Chapelle show!’) … an actor (‘he’s in the new Gondry film!’) and not white (‘I don’t see race’).”

It was hard to see it coming. A product of Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, housing projects, Mos was expected to usher in another rap golden era when he collaborated with Talib Kweli on their 1998 Black Star album, which helped kick off the backpacker movement and made rap once again safe for intellectuals. Bringing Mos’ rootsy sound and arts, lyrics and heritage-focus to the mainstream, it set the stage for his adored 1999 solo debut Black on Both Sides, which mixed rumpshakers like “Ms. Fat Booty” with tracks highlighting his jazzy, beatnik influences and political leanings.

But after the abominations that were his two follow-ups The New Danger and True Magic — genre mish-mashes both, the latter of which featured a swipe at erstwhile Def Jam CEO Lyor Cohen — he was all but written off. (The Denali commercials didn’t help.) All is forgiven, however, on The Ecstatic, which is highlighted by transcendent Black Star reunion track “History.”

“Theory: Mos Def was held in Guantanamo from ’00 to ’08, replaced with a doppelganger who couldn’t rhyme and only now returned to society,” wrote hip-hop blogger Sach O of The Ecstatic, summarizing the feelings of Mos fans everywhere. “This is actually his second solo album.”

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