|Studio album by|
|Released||June 9, 2009|
|Mos Def chronology|
|Singles from The Ecstatic|
The Ecstatic is the fourth album by American rapper Mos Def. It was released on June 9, 2009, by Downtown Records. After venturing further away from hip hop with an acting career and two poorly received albums, Mos Def signed a recording contract with Downtown and recorded The Ecstatic primarily at the Record Plant in Los Angeles. He worked with producers such as Preservation, Mr. Flash, Oh No, and Madlib, the latter two of whom reused instrumentals they had produced on Stones Throw Records. Singer Georgia Anne Muldrow, formerly of the record label, was one of the album's few guest vocalists, along with rappers Slick Rick and Talib Kweli.
The album has been described by music journalists as a conscious and alternative hip hop record with an eccentric, internationalist quality. Mos Def's raps about global politics, love, spirituality, and social conditions are informed by the zeitgeist of the late 2000s, Black internationalism, and Pan-Islamic ideas, incorporating a number of Islamic references throughout the album. Its loosely structured, lightly reverbed songs use unconventional time signatures and samples taken from a variety of international musical styles, including Afrobeat, soul, Eurodance, jazz, reggae, Latin, and Middle Eastern music. Mos Def titled the album after one of his favorite novels, Victor LaValle's The Ecstatic (2002), believing its titular phrase evoked his singular musical vision. For its front cover, a still from Charles Burnett's 1978 film Killer of Sheep was reproduced in red tint.
The Ecstatic charted at number nine on the Billboard 200 in its first week of release and eventually sold 168,000 copies. Its sales benefited from its presence on Internet blogs and the release of a T-shirt illustrating the record's packaging alongside a label printed with a code redeemable for a free download of the album. A widespread critical success, The Ecstatic was viewed as a return to form for Mos Def and one of the year's best albums. He embarked on an international tour to support the record, performing concerts in North America, Japan, Australia, and the United Kingdom between September and April 2010. As his DJ on the tour, Preservation began to develop remixes of the album's songs, which he later released on the remix album The REcstatic in 2013.
In 2006, Mos Def's third album True Magic was released haphazardly by Geffen Records to fulfill a contractual obligation while he was devoting more time to his acting career. The quality of the album, along with his repeated ventures away from recording hip hop, left "some fans wondering if Mos Def's acting accomplishments were finally affecting his music", PopMatters critic Quentin B. Huff later wrote. Speaking with Spank Rock for Interview magazine, Mos Def elucidated his artistic endeavors at the time: "You have to experience life, make observations, ask questions. It's machine-like how things are run in hip-hop now, and my ambitions are different ... To me the job of an artist is to provide a useful and intelligent vocabulary for the world to be able to articulate feelings they experience every day." After ending his tenure on Geffen, he signed a record deal with Downtown Records before recording The Ecstatic as his first album for the label.
Recording and production
The Ecstatic was mostly recorded in sessions at the Record Plant in Los Angeles. The songs "Twilight Speedball", "No Hay Nada Mas", and "Roses" were partially recorded at Hovercraft Studios in Virginia Beach, Someothaship Connect in Los Angeles, and New York City's Downtown Music Studios. Mos Def worked with producers Mr. Flash, Oh No, Madlib, and Preservation, who previously produced some of True Magic's songs. For The Ecstatic, Oh No reused some of his productions from his 2007 album Dr. No's Oxperiment, while Madlib incorporated samples from his Beat Konducta in India (2007) record. For "Life in Marvelous Times", Mr. Flash reused the beat from "Champions" – his 2006 collaboration with the French hip hop group TTC – while "History" used a beat produced by J Dilla before his death.
With Preservation, Mos Def produced "Casa Bey" after a 2006 trip to Rio de Janeiro, where local rapper MV Bill introduced him to the music of Banda Black Rio. Mos Def and Preservation altered one of the band's songs – "Casa Forte", an instrumental featuring their characteristic blend of funk, jazz, soul, and Brazilian rhythms – and used it as the beat. The original song title – meaning "strong house" in Portuguese – was changed to "Casa Bey"; Bey was Mos Def's family surname. According to him, he tried to enlist rappers Jay Electronica, Black Thought, and Trugoy for the song, but they all found it too difficult to rap over the instrumental.
Mos Def collaborated with singer Georgia Anne Muldrow and rappers Slick Rick and Talib Kweli – his partner in the rap duo Black Star. Muldrow sang and played piano on "Roses", which she originally wrote and recorded in 2008 for her album Umsindo (2009). She said Mos Def "borrowed" the song for The Ecstatic after they met through a mutual friend. "They came over one day and started playing 'Roses.' He was singing the song and knew it. He said 'I wanna grab that.' I said, 'Man, I already got this as a single'. He just wanted that song. He snatched it up real quick", she recalled in laughter.
Along with Madlib, Oh No, and J Dilla, Muldrow had been an affiliate of Stones Throw Records; according to journalist Nathan Rabin, they collectively produced half of the album, lending its sound a "sympathetic" quality. With The Ecstatic, Mos Def said he wanted to offer listeners sincere, uninhibited observations about life and love, "some truth and positive heart lift", without the need for club songs. "No disrespect to [the club]".
Music and lyrics
The Ecstatic covers an international range of styles in a very loose and extemporaneous manner, held together by what Rabin describes as "a lyrical and sonic fascination with life beyond the Western World". According to Robert Christgau, the songs average two-and-a-half minutes and segue into one another without resolution, giving it the feel of a globally influenced hip hop mixtape "with poles in Brooklyn and Beirut". The music reflects Mos Def's varied interests in jazz, poetry, Eastern rhythms, psychedelia, Spanish music, and the blues. The tracks on the first half are, as The Observer's Ben Thompson describes, "predominantly Eastward-looking", while the second half indulges more in Latin and reggae influences. Other sounds sampled or explored include Afrobeat ("Quiet Dog Bite Hard"), Eurodance ("Life in Marvelous Times"), Bollywood ("Supermagic"), and Philadelphia soul. "Supermagic" also draws on elements from Turkish acid rock and Mary Poppins, while on "No Hay Nada Mas", Mos Def sings and raps in Spanish over a flamenco-influenced production. He sings elsewhere on the album, often breaking into sing-song vamps during his raps. Along with his singing, the often sample-based music is unconventional in its use of what Preservation calls unusual time signatures and "awkward" breakdowns.
According to The Independent's Simmy Richman, The Ecstatic's Eastern-influenced musical backdrop is reflective of Mos Def's "post-War on Terror" themes. Richman calls it a conscious rap record, and No Ripcord's Ryan Faughnder regards it as "socially conscious alternative hip-hop". African-American studies and media scholar Sohail Daulatzai believes the album is informed by Black internationalist politics and Pan-Islamic ideas, while State magazine's Niall Byrne says it explores the theme of international relations on songs such as the Middle Eastern-influenced "The Embassy" and "Auditorium", which features an Iraq-themed guest rap by Slick Rick. On the former track, Mos Def raps from the perspective of an outsider about the lifestyle of an ambassador at a luxury hotel, while the opening song "Supermagic" critiques government treatment of minority groups. Mos Def incorporates a number of Islamic references throughout the album, including samples of American Muslim activist Malcolm X, Turkish protest singer Selda Bağcan, and an Arab-language scene from the 1966 film The Battle of Algiers; additionally, the track "Wahid" is titled after the Arabic word for "oneness".
As on Mos Def's other albums, he speaks a dedication to God in Arabic ("Bismillah ar-Rahman ar-Raheem") at the start of The Ecstatic, before "Supermagic" begins with a sample of Malcolm X's 1964 speech at Oxford Union. The sample prefaces the album's "small-globe statement", as Pitchfork journalist Nate Patrin explains, saying it indicates that Mos Def has "a stake in something greater than just one corner of the rap world". Alex Young from Consequence of Sound believes the speech introduces "a political album encompassing global beats and viewpoints". According to The Washington Post critic Allison Stewart, Mos Def seems equally interested in the Obama-era zeitgeist as in accounts of the past, such as the early-1980s Bedford–Stuyvesant setting of "Life in Marvelous Times". Young deems the song anthemic for "a seemingly paradoxical age that routinely sees events such as a Black man being elected president of a nation wallowing in racial inequality". From Christgau's perspective, Mos Def offers a credo in the lyrics: "More of less than ever before / It's just too much more for your mind to absorb / It's scary like hell, but there's no doubt / We can't be alive in no time but now".
Throughout The Ecstatic, Mos Def alternates between what AllMusic's Andy Kellman called nonsensical yet intellectual raps and "seemingly nonchalant, off-the-cuff boasts", set against eccentric, lightly reverbed productions. According to The Guardian's Paul MacInnes, The Ecstatic features his characteristically "fragmented lyrical style, which loops words within phrases and plays on sound as much as meaning". "Auditorium" showcases his "complex and convoluted" lyricism delivered closely in rhythm with the beat, Patrin says, citing the lines "soul is the lion's roar, voice is the siren / I swing 'round, wring out and bring down the tyrant / chop a small axe and knock a giant lopsided". He explores Afrocentric themes on "Revelations" and compares love to a gunfight on "Pistola". On "Roses", Muldrow sings nature-friendly lyrics about drawing flowers in times of sadness rather than plucking them from the ground. "Roses is about creativity and human capacity", she explains. "A lot of times Western society makes [women] base our sense of worth on 'diamonds are forever' or 'a dozen roses' and that's how you prove your love to somebody … but you receive so many gifts and still feel empty. So draw them and let the roses come from inside."
Title and packaging
The Ecstatic was titled after Victor LaValle's 2002 dark humor novel. One of Mos Def's favorite novels, it was written about an overweight college dropout who fell into mental illness while living with his eccentric family in Queens, New York. According to Mos Def, the phrase "the ecstatic" was "used in the 17th and 18th centuries to describe people who were either mad or divinely inspired and consequently dismissed as kooks". The phrase resonated with him, as he believed no one else in hip hop had ever recorded an album like The Ecstatic. "I feel like I was the only person who was capable of making this type of music in this type of way", he claimed. "I don't rap like nobody, I don't try to sound like nobody." He said "the ecstatic" also refers to "a type of devotional energy, an impossible dream that becomes reality but is discredited before it's realized. The airplane, a nutty idea. The telephone, the Internet. People who envisioned those were considered radical or extreme."
The Ecstatic was packaged with few liner notes and a two-sheet booklet featuring a photo of Mos Def taken using the Photo Booth software application. The front cover photo reproduced a still in red tint from Killer of Sheep, a low-budget 1978 film by Charles Burnett about African-American life in 1970s Watts, Los Angeles. According to Dale Eisinger from Complex, the "subtle and still-moving" photo reflects the ideas of cultural justice and global inequality present throughout Mos Def's career while capturing the "sonic construction" of The Ecstatic's music. "The cover has hazy, dream-like movement", Eisinger said, "appearing as a non-narrative, loose collection of vignettes that are tangentially fascinating and incredibly powerful." For the back cover, a 1928 photo of the Moorish Science Temple gathering in Chicago was used, which Daulatzai interpreted as another element of Mos Def's "Pan-Islamic mashup" on the album.
Marketing and sales
The Ecstatic was released by Downtown on June 9, 2009. In its first week, the album sold 39,000 copies and debuted at number nine on the Billboard 200, becoming the second record of Mos Def's career to reach the top 10 on the chart. The following week, he became the first recording artist to endorse the Original Music Tee, a T-shirt featuring the album cover on the front, the track listing on the back, and a tag with a code to download an MP3 copy of the record. The marketing strategy led to enough sales that Billboard factored the T-shirts as album units on the magazine's music charts. The Ecstatic also benefited from the number of mentions it received on Internet blog posts, which peaked during the week of June 29. The album reached 168,000 copies sold in March 2014.
Three singles were released to promote the album: "Life in Marvelous Times" on November 4, 2008; "Quiet Dog Bite Hard" on January 13, 2009; and "Casa Bey" on May 26. According to Charles Aaron, "Life in Marvelous Times" was the "most powerful and accessible song" Mos Def had ever recorded, but it could not even manage to receive airplay on radio stations in his native New York. "If [it] can't get on the radio, then I don't need to be on the radio", the rapper said in August, expressing a wavering interest in reaching mainstream audiences.
|The Irish Times|||
|MSN Music (Consumer Guide)||A|
The Ecstatic was met with widespread critical acclaim. After two poorly received records by Mos Def, it was viewed by critics as a return to the form of his 1999 debut album Black on Both Sides, earning some of the best reviews of his career. At Metacritic, which assigns a normalized rating out of 100 to reviews from mainstream publications, The Ecstatic received an average score of 81, based on 28 reviews. Aggregator AnyDecentMusic? gave it 7.7 out of 10, based on their assessment of the critical consensus.
In The New Yorker, The Ecstatic was hailed as Mos Def's "most conceptually knotty and ambitious work", while Aaron wrote in Spin that the "internationalist return to form" is also "perhaps his liveliest work". For The Irish Times, Jim Carroll said the rapper has not performed this engagingly or skillfully since his career beginnings, highlighting especially "Supermagic" and "Life in Marvelous Times". Mick Middles from The Quietus appraised it as "the joyful sound of a rampant artist, unrestrained by expectation or commercialism", with free-flowing music that escapes the boundaries his previous albums had merely pushed. Ben Thompson, in The Observer, believed the diverse range of samples make it "a crate-digger's wet dream" and "a thrillingly accessible demonstration of hip-hop's limitless creative possibilities" to a layperson. Writing for MSN Music, Christgau felt the songs are "devoid of hooks but full of sounds you want to hear again", along with "thoughtfully slurred" yet intelligible lyrics by Mos Def, whose creative vision warrants the introductory Malcolm X sample. In the opinion of Time's Josh Tyrangiel, his political meditations may not appeal to conservatives but are rich in "the rhythm, exuberance and wit Mos Def showed on his early records". Steve Jones of USA Today said his reflections on politics, love, religion, and societal conditions are full of insight and sincerity while calling the album his strongest effort.
Some reviewers were less impressed. Rolling Stone critic Christian Hoard found the quality of the songs inconsistent, while Slant Magazine's Eric Henderon claimed much of the music lacks song structure and "careen[s] wildly, free from the constraints of chorus and verse". Margaret Wappler evaluated the record with qualified praise in the Los Angeles Times, saying it "mostly lives up to its giddy name" but wanes occasionally while the artful samples may challenge listeners at first.
At the end of 2009, The Ecstatic was named one of the year's 10 best albums. The album was ranked 30th by The Guardian, 24th by Q, 23rd by Slant Magazine, 17th by Rolling Stone, 16th by Sputnikmusic, 15th by PopMatters, 12th by Spex, 10th by Relevant, 7th by Spin, and 3rd by eMusic; About.com and BBC Music both named it the year's best rap record. In The Village Voice's Pazz & Jop – an annual poll of American critics nationwide – The Ecstatic was voted the 11th best album of 2009. Christgau, the poll's creator, ranked it 12th on his own year-end list for The Barnes & Noble Review. The Times placed it at number 30 on the newspaper's decade-end list of the 100 greatest records from the 2000s. It finished at numbers 27 and 155 on similar lists published by Rhapsody and Rock's Backpages, respectively. It was also nominated for a 2010 Grammy Award in the category of Best Rap Album, while "Casa Bey" was nominated for Best Rap Solo Performance. In 2013, Beats Per Minute named The Ecstatic the 112th best album of the past five years. Based on such rankings, the aggregate website Acclaimed Music lists it as the 24th most critically acclaimed album from 2009.
Mos Def supported the album with an international tour, which began its North American leg in early August 2009. This stretch of concerts spanned a number of US and Canadian cities, including Chicago, Miami, Washington D.C., Miami, Portland, Calgary, and Vancouver. Jay Electronica performed as his opening act, and certain shows were co-headlined with Kweli and singer Erykah Badu. The leg concluded on October 3 with an evening performance slot at the Austin City Limits Music Festival. Mos Def continued touring into the following year, playing a series of concerts in Japan during late 2009, which were documented in an episode of the Current TV series Embedded. This was followed by his first headlining tour of Australia in January 2010 and a short series of April concerts in the United Kingdom.
Between January 30 and February 6, 2010, the HVW8 Art & Design Gallery in Los Angeles held an exclusive one-week exhibition titled "Mos Def: Ecstatic Moments – Photographs". It showcased a collection of photos taken by Cognito – a longtime hip hop documentarian and colleague of Mos Def – capturing the rapper during the two years spent making and promoting The Ecstatic. Included in the exhibition were candid photographs of him in the studio with the album's producers, and photos of his experiences visiting and touring locations around the world, including the Cape of Good Hope and São Paulo. A series of "posse shots" taken at the end of concerts from the American tour were also displayed, showing the rapper with Jay Electronica, Kweli, Badu, and musician Shuggie Otis, who made an unexpected appearance during the tour.
The timing of the exhibition was meant to capitalize on Mos Def's two nominations for the Grammy Awards, which were being held that week, Cognito explained: "I thought it was a perfect time to honor his presence while he's here. We've had a lot of our greats pass away in the past couple of years, be it Dilla or Bataan [sic], or whoever, and now everybody wants to talk 'Dilla Dilla Dilla' or whatever, but you weren't saying that while he was alive. Let's praise our heroes while they're alive."
While on tour as Mos Def's in-concert DJ, Preservation began to remix some of The Ecstatic's songs for their live routine. He challenged himself to remix the rest of the record, taking more than a year, as a project called The REcstatic, working with Jan Fairchild, the original album's mixing engineer. Preservation revisited sources for the original beats to find similar recordings that would correspond to each song's particular aesthetic while preserving Mos Def's vocals for the remixes. He wanted them to be sample-based and consistent in key, pitch, and tone to the first album, which he found difficult to achieve because of the original music's unorthodox instrumentals and singing. "It's the result of countless hours of digging through records to sample", he recalled. "Constructing the beat, wrapping it around the vocal, adjusting the tempo, and so on". "Black Fantastic", an outtake produced by Minnesota during The Ecstatic's recording, replaced "Casa Bey" in the final track listing, as Preservation had found the tempo and structure of the original song too difficult to make a satisfactory remix.
The REcstatic was released as a free download on June 12, 2013, by Preservation's imprint label, Mon Dieu Music. Reviewing the remix album in Tiny Mix Tapes, Samuel Diamond said the rapturous energy of the original record was given a "slightly rougher texture" on what he deemed "a respectful contribution to the canon of remix-based art, something that can be said for very few modern rap 'remixes'".
|1.||"Supermagic"||Dante Smith, Michael Jackson||Oh No||2:32|
|2.||"Twilite Speedball"||Smith, Chad Hugo||The Neptunes, Mos Def||3:02|
|3.||"Auditorium" (featuring Slick Rick)||Smith, Otis Jackson Jr., Richard Walters||Madlib, Mos Def||4:34|
|4.||"Wahid"||Smith, O. Jackson||Madlib||1:39|
|5.||"Priority"||Smith, Jean Daval||Preservation||1:22|
|6.||"Quiet Dog Bite Hard"||Smith, Daval||Preservation||2:57|
|7.||"Life in Marvelous Times"||Smith, Gilles Bousquet||Mr. Flash||3:41|
|8.||"The Embassy"||Smith, Bousquet, Ihsan al Munzer||Mr. Flash, Mos Def||2:45|
|9.||"No Hay Nada Mas"||Smith, Daval||Preservation||1:42|
|10.||"Pistola"||Smith, M. Jackson, Anthony Hester||Oh No||3:02|
|11.||"Pretty Dancer"||Smith, O. Jackson||Madlib||3:31|
|12.||"Workers Comp."||Smith, Bousquet, Marvin Gaye||Mr. Flash||2:02|
|13.||"Revelations"||Smith, O. Jackson, Michael Drake||Madlib||2:03|
|14.||"Roses" (featuring Georgia Anne Muldrow)||Smith, Georgia Anne Muldrow||Georgia Anne Muldrow||3:41|
|15.||"History" (featuring Talib Kweli)||Smith, James Yancey, Talib K. Greene, Zekkariyas, Mary Wells Womack||J Dilla||2:21|
|16.||"Casa Bey"||Smith, Eduardo Lobo||Preservation, Mos Def||4:32|
- "Supermagic" contains a sample of "Ince Ince" by Selda Bağcan.
- "Priority" contains elements from "Flower" by Bobby Hebb.
- "Quiet Dog Bite Hard" contains portions of an interview with Fela Kuti from the documentary film Music Is the Weapon.
- "The Embassy" contains a sample of "The Joy of Lina" by Ihsan al Munzer.
- "Pistola" contains elements from "In the Rain" by Billy Wooten.
- "Workers Comp." contains a sample of "If This World Were Mine" by Marvin Gaye.
- "Revelations" contains portions of "Colours" by Michael Drake.
- "History" contains a sample of "Two Lovers History" by Mary Wells.
- "Casa Bey" contains a sample of "Casa Forte" by Banda Black Rio.
- Fernando Aponte – engineering
- Danny Betancourt – engineering
- Josh Blair – additional vocal engineering
- Matt De Sando – additional vocal engineering
- Sayyd Droullard – additional engineering
- Jan Fairchild – engineering, mixing
- Josh Grant – additional engineering
- Bernie Grundman – mastering
- Zach Hancock – additional engineering
- Myron Kingsbury – assistant engineering
- Talib Kweli – vocals
- Georgia Anne Muldrow – engineering, piano, production, vocals
- The Neptunes – production
- Madlib – production
- Mos Def – arrangement, production, vocals
- Mr. Flash – production
- Oh No – production
- Preservation – arrangement, production
- Slick Rick – vocals
- Ben Yonas – additional vocal engineering
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