Such is the ragged state of the music industry that it’s almost a shock that some musicians still care enough about how many albums they sell that they forge new models of media distribution. While not quite on the same scale as Prince handing out free copies of Musicology to every concert ticketholder, Mos Def’s new album The Ecstatic will soon be made available free of charge (in a sense) to music-minded fashionistas. A line of T-shirts will be sold in July that not only feature the album’s cover art (a still from the Charles Burnett film Killer of Sheep), but also a coded tag which buyers can use to download their own copy of the album. Makes sense, as Mos Def’s albums since 1999’s subtly uncompromising Black on Both Sides have steadily moved closer and closer to a digestible, off-the-rack accessibility, culminating in True Magic, which pleased no one. But despite the calculation and consumer-minded distribution model, Ecstatic turns out to be a modest but unmistakable step back toward comparable consciousness.
Befitting a return to roots, “Live in Marvelous Times” is Mos Def’s “I Wish,” a hard-edged return to Bedford-Stuyvesant circa 1982 (“the pre-crack era”) in which bittersweet memories of the pop culture that was (“My phone wasn’t touchtone, a heavy beef in the street E.T. had to flee”) are juxtaposed against a clear-eyed view of the reality that sets in harder with each passing year. Set against a magisterial beat, it alone validates the borrowing of Burnett on the cover. Killer of Sheep‘s Watts neighborhood isn’t Bed-Stuy, but Mos Def makes the leap of faith as deftly as the pictured boy, leaping from rooftop to rooftop. It’s probably the fullest standalone song on the whole album, which otherwise proudly bears the trademark stamp of producer Madlib’s cinematic sound palate (solidly emulated by his younger brother Oh No). Both “Auditorium” and “Revelations,” with their spaghetti western samples and interjected raspberries, sound like flat-out remixes of Madvillain’s “All Caps”; the entire album careens wildly, free from the constraints of chorus and verse, like the best from Stones Throw’s back catalogue.
With leftfield collaborations with Slick Rick on one side and the reedy-feely Georgia Anne Muldrow on the other, Ecstatic isn’t the concentrated wonder that is Black on Both Sides, but it’s a refreshing bounce back from the precipice of the Land of Sellout. And you can print that on a T-shirt.