Styles: conscious/political hip hop
Others: Talib Kweli, Common, Blackstar, Gang Starr
Let’s get it out in the open right now: this is not Black on Both Sides, nor is this Blackstar. For years now, fans have been judging Mos Def as a man who steps to the plate two strikes down; anything he does is immediately judged as a fall from grace. Following the abysmal response to The New Danger, there is little doubt that Tru3 Magic is marked for similar castigation.
I’d like to posit a different spin on his latest offering. Perhaps we forget that the Mighty Mos issued his frantic critique of urban society as an energetic twenty-something, eager to greet the new millennium with an edge and an appetite for change. Seven years later, Dante Smith is a man in his mid-thirties who has watched his society slip from faux-liberalism to neo-conservatism and has seen his career maligned due to his thirst for innovation. Who can blame him if he sounds tired and resigned or if the minimal packaging portrays an artist who is ready to hang up the mic?
Tru3 Magic is a valuable record. If Black on Both Sides portrayed a city culture that is discontented but pulsing with energy in the hot summer sun, this album depicts the streets in the chilly night, with a people stung by defeat, seething with anger just beneath the surface. The beats are ominous on the opening title track, with a synth hook that keeps climbing and overseeing Mos on the verses, and it’s apparent that he’s frustrated. He may claim that "it just keeps getting better with time,", but the ethos of those first minutes belies his choice of words. By "Thug Is A Drug," we hear the sound of a bitter rapper who once urged us to seek beauty in the ghetto, but now fearlessly and fatalistically paints the picture of the city’s seedy underbelly, with little redeeming quality. At the end of "A Ha," Mos shakes his head in disbelief as he quotes A Tribe Called Quest, "I really can’t say/ I guess I laugh to keep from cryin’/ So much goin’ on/ People killin’ people dyin’,", and it’s at this midpoint in the album that he offers justification for the pessimism.
"Dollar Day (Surprise, Surprise)" follows, unleashing Mos’ (and some of the American public’s) frustration and anger. A scathing commentary that surveys black America in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the melancholy chorus shakes with disgust at our apathy, as well as the unwillingness of white celebrities — all too eager to boost their PR image with a trip to the Third World — to address the issue of inner city poverty here at home. Mos’ outrage grows, culminating in his accusation of the President treating Black people worse than garbage. Two tracks after this diatribe, however, a ray of hope shines on "There Is A Way," in which we are told not to lose hope, that things can improve.
The album’s not perfect. There aren’t the poignant observations of societal hypocrisy as in "Mr. Nigga" or the breakdown of inequalities as in "Mathematics." Further, the tracklisting could be a bit different; one could argue that "There Is A Way" is better suited as an outgoing message at the final track, rather than two-thirds through the record. Still, Mos Def’s third album is worth a careful listen: it’s not a happy record, and there are few, if any, genius rhymes. But it speaks volumes about the frustration and resignation of the underprivileged.
Finally, on a musical level, the sparse packaging and lazy lyricism may be Mos’ realization that he simply cannot meet impossible expectations and that the "independent scene" might be a stronger advocate of formulaic success than of creativity. And as this review is written, it becomes known that Tru3 Magic has been slated at the 11th hour for a Spring re-release, after Geffen and Mos both came to regret its rush to stores following an online leak. Still, while the track order is expected to shuffle and the cover art will be redesigned, listeners will likely draw the same conclusion then as now.
Black on Both Sides came out in 1999, when online journalism and file sharing seemed to hold new promise for music as an artform. But as several indie sites end up being new hallmarks of the mainstream (rather than a place for writers with devilish wit) and online music access becomes increasingly restricted, one is left to wonder if the skepticism and negativity that permeates Tru3 Magic is simply telling it how it is.
1. Tru3 Magic 2. Undeniable 3. U R The One 4. Thug is a Drug 5. Crime & Medicine 6. A Ha 7. Dollar Day 8. Napolean Dynamite 9. There Is A Way 10. Sun, Moon, and Stars 11. Murder of a Teenage Life 12. Fake Bonanza 13. Perfect Timing 14. Lifetime