Later this year it will be the 20th anniversary of Yasiin Bey’s, the artist formerly known as ‘Mos def,’ debut solo album, Black on Both Sides. Released in 1999, it represents nothing less than the Golden era (the 1990s) of hip-hop’s swan song, its crowning glory…Let the credits roll.
Black on Both Sides was a culmination of everything good about 90s hip-hop sprinkled with a refreshing dose of religiosity and the sincerest of reflections on a state of affairs. Mos Def was considered a sort of hip-hop Messiah by critics at the time, and 20 years on we can learn even more from his preachings.
A number of tracks off the album could fit snugly into a Tribe Called Quest, Wu Tang Clan or even an MF Doom discography. In this accord, Black on Both Sides demonstrates an eclectic palette for east coast boom-bap, ‘jazz-rap’ sampling- ‘Love,’ ‘Know That’ or ‘Mr. N***a’ to name a few. More experimental tracks such as ‘Got’ and ‘Brooklyn’ take the album underground; ’Brooklyn’ creates a cinematic jazz-noir atmosphere eventually trademarked by Madvillainy in 2004, hip hop’s subterranean Bible. ‘Mathematics,’ and ‘Ms Fat Booty’ have garnered classic status, and finally, if you add ‘Do It Now,’ which ups the tempo a little. to the equation, you now have the all-in-one 90s package - thoughtful, experimental and club-ready.
A culmination of everything good about 90s hip-hop
Setting this album apart from its predecessors requires a closer look at the lyrical content. The artists I’ve mentioned are all socio-conscious in their own right as hip-hop in the 90s truly harnessed a political influence, typically concerning racial inequality. Mos Def, with God by his side, took a slightly different approach. On ‘New World Water’ he delves precariously into a typically un-hip hop discussion of global-warming, water shortages and capitalist alienation.
The album opener ‘Fear Not of Man’ is Mos Def’s prophecy on everything from hip-hop to materialism and self-worth. Listen up. “Mind over matter and soul before flesh… the hip hop won’t get better until the people get better.” Oh dear, if he was thinking this in 1999, I wonder what he thinks of Lil Pump…
In 2012, Mos Def dedicated himself to Islam by changing his name, finally disassociating from all the darker, ungodly connotations of hip-hop. A few years later he water-boarded himself and posted it on the internet in protest against torture treatments at Guantanamo Bay. Most recently, during his ‘final show’ before retirement at the O2 Forum Kentish Town, he spent half the time sitting on a bed of roses, externalising a whimsical, disjointed monologue like the protagonist of a modern Shakespearean tragedy. Granted, after 20 years, he might have lost his edge, but in these uncertain post-modern (Trump-Brexit?) times, maybe we can still learn something from Yasiin and his seminal work.