People talk about Hip-Hop like it’s some giant livin’ in the hillside,
Comin’ down to visit the townspeople
We are Hip-Hop
Me, you, everybody, we are Hip-Hop
So says Mos Def on “Fear Not of Man,” the opening track on Black on Both Sides. It’s hard for me to believe that the rapper’s 1999 album is his debut.
The Mighty Mos, who now goes by Yasiin Bey in homage to his Muslim faith (more on that later), is so polished and professional it sounds like a man in his prime. Consider the genre in this instance: hip-hop. To my knowledge, most rappers and hip-hop artists start as producers or by releasing mixtapes or by collaborating. Rarely do they drop an album from the get-go, let alone one as game changing as this one was.
I should qualify these statements by also saying that the year prior to Black on Both Sides, Mos collaborated with Talib Kweli as Black Star to release the fittingly-titled Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star, another gem of a record. He also rapped with De La Soul and was, no joke, Bill Cosby’s sidekick on something called The Cosby Mysteries.
As it is with singer-songwriters, for some reason, this genre lends itself to prolific artists and massive releases. Case in point: Black on Both Sides spans a full 70+ minutes at 17 (!) tracks.
And because of the album’s length, the debut feels like two records in one. The first half, up through “New World Water” at track 9, plays like a bit more conventional underground hip-hop album, whatever that is. On the back side, from the punk rock breakout on “Rock n Roll” (including a killer Limp Bizkit dig) to closer “May-December,” the record takes its chances with unconventional, experimental styles.
At least, that’s my takeaway, years and years after listening to it for the first time. I was in my freshman year of high school when I first discovered Black on Both Sides, about two years after its initial release date. So now, a decade and a half after it was released, I have a wholly different perspective.
The good news is that the Mighty Mos’ debut has aged well. Tracks like “Got” and “Brooklyn” could stand up to just about anything on Yeezus or Magna Carta Holy Grail and hold their own today.
The underlying message and narrative of those songs and others like the infectious “Umi Says” and “Hip Hop” may mean more now than they did prior to the turn of the century. This is due in part to Yasiin Bey’s increased political activism.
Since it’s relevant and happened just this month, it’s worth noting a video that was released, with Bey acting as a willing participant in being force fed. In case you are missing what’s going on right now at Guantanamo Bay with prisoners on hunger strike and being tube fed bottles of Ensure during the holy month of Ramadan, educate yourself.
So I wouldn’t give this type of heads up under normal circumstances (thanks to the light-hearted nature of the videos that appear on this project), but if you’re squeamish, you may want to avoid this. I feel it’s imperative to alert you, reader, that this video isn’t for the faint of heart –
Truth be told, I can’t even watch the whole thing. And there is, as per usual with this type of viral video, some question as to its authenticity, because Bey is an actor with credits on movies like Be Kind, Rewind (underrated!) and the TV show Dexter. It could have been a carefully crafted fake. Regardless of its legitimacy, the message is what is to be focused on, not the production.
If for no other reason, peep Black on Both Sides because of Bey’s perspective and insight. Stay for one of my all-time favorite hip-hop albums.
From his tremendous debut, here’s Mos Def aka Yasiin Bey’s “Umi Says” –
Standout tracks: “Do It Now” and “New World Water” and “Rock N Roll” and “Know That” and “Mathematics” – ugh, there’s so much good here.
Weakest track: Nah.
RIYL: Underground hip-hop, rap. Black Star, Talib Kweli, Common, The Roots.