When Mos Def's latest album, The New Danger, dropped in October, I prematurely called it one of the best rap albums to come out this year. I was just excited that the artist had finally released a follow-up to his excellent 1999 debut, the gold-selling Black on Both Sides.
But I have lived with the latest CD for the last two months. And I must confess: The New Danger is overly ambitious, full of grand intentions that never really fly. Rock (early Funkadelic, a little Jimi Hendrix) is clearly his style inspiration throughout, but his ambitions nearly swallow him on the record. So I wondered if Def could harness those big musical ideas in concert. Because the album garnered several scathing reviews upon release, would the Brooklyn rapper sharpen the vision of New Danger on stage - streamline some stuff, make it more accessible?
No and, uh, no. The acclaimed performer played Sonar Lounge Monday night. And his two-hour show was just as disjointed as his new record - though his warm wit buoyed the set at times. (Throughout New Danger, Def is aloof and grouchy.) In his five years away from the studio, the performer has established himself as a brilliantly charismatic actor, even snagging an Emmy nomination for his finely nuanced portrayal of the celebrated Johns Hopkins Hospital surgical technician Vivien Thomas in the HBO movie Something the Lord Made.
But hardly any of that charisma translated to his show. He and his DJs came out in all black: Def's head, nose and mouth were wrapped in black fabric as he opened with "The Boogie Man Song": "I am the most beautiful man/Let me be your favorite nightmare/Close your eyes and I'll be right there ..."
As he stuck mostly to his new, esoteric material, the crowd was left pondering such nonsensical lines all night. In between songs, speaking into a mike manipulated by the sound engineer, Def sounded like Darth Vader talking into a fan as he rambled on about ... who knows what?
He kept revisiting the "boogie man" motif all night, but he never clarified just who the boogie man is. Does he symbolize hip-hop today? Should we fear him? None of it made any sense.
When he wasn't trying too hard to be different and inaccessible, the rapper rocked the house like an old-school MC. He flipped Snoop Dogg's current No. 1 smash, "Drop It Like It's Hot," into a witty jam that was more fun and revelatory than the version burning up the airwaves. And the packed room felt like a spirited basement party as Def launched into "Ms. Fat Booty," one of his best cuts and a highlight off of Black on Both Sides.
But the momentum crashed when the artist decided to talk to the house and define his meaning of the "N-word": "Everybody is one. Racism is boring." And this from a rapper who's often lionized as a socially conscious visionary in hip-hop.