1999 on the brink of insanity; through the Y2K fog and soon terror attacks on America, there was a clairvoyance in a single poet’s voice. Mos Def was a rising power in hip-hop after his project with Talib Kweli on Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star just a year earlier. All eyes were starting to shift on Mos Def for his newest project that would use primarily live instrumentation and release some of the most recognizable tracks in history on a single project.
Black On Both Sides was a social commentary on the consciousness of an American moving through a solo debut-record release in a corporate world. It took the street-level approach with tracks “Hip Hop”, “Ms. Fat Booty” and “UMI Says” that felt instantly comfortable and a reflection of the variation that Mos Def contained. There was something that just clicked on each approaching track and something that really connected a common flow with each incoming movement. As Mos Def dances through the vibrations of boom-bap percussion of “Hip Hop”, or as he creates the chant behind the broken marry-go-round of “Speed Law”. Black On Both Sides holds this ever-pressing sensibility that can still touch into the influential and experimental in a modern age.
Mos Def uses an arrangement of synths, electronic keys, samples, percussion, and vocal overlays to deliver on “Got”. A conflicting track that has these dark valleys of robotic valves and synthetic openings, but also shows a lighter side on the chorus. “Don’t Get me, Don’t Get Me, Don’t Get-Ga-Get-Ga-Get Get Me” Mos Def cheerfully explains as the sunny chord progression reigns these rays of light onto the track. Mos Def then takes a quick nose dive into the darker style as he opens a more conscious level of delivery, describing, “Cause while the goods glisten, certain eyes take position. To observe your trickin’, then catch that ass slipping. Like, come on now ock, what you expect? Got a month’s paycheck danglin’ off your neck.” It feels real and personal coming from Mos Def as he then moves into the Stevie Wonder styled, “UMI Says”.
With an electronic keyboard playing the main melody, Def uses a soft-spoken voice to create the lyrical output that illustrates his flaws. “I ain’t no perfect man. I’m trying to do the best that I can, with what it is I have… I hope you feel me, from where I am to wherever you are. I mean that sincerely, tomorrow may never come,” as Mos Def sounds almost reminiscent and ultimately influential. It is one of the better musical displays on Black On Both Sides to the point that the musical progression can bring emotional outbursts in the form of tears.
On one of the most impactful moving parts of the record, Mos Def transitions into “Rock N Roll” which features a punk rock instrumental progression that catches the listener off-guard and throws them into a whirlwind of blitzing percussion and rummaging guitars. It is a sudden movement that punches through the hip-hop sound and completely throws Black On Both Sides through a period that is sublime, but also frantic.
The unexpected nature as the first track is more of a spoken word illustration of Mos Def as he explains his appreciation for black musicians in history before finally attacking with “You may dig on the Rolling Stones, but everything they did they stole. Elvis Presley ain’t got no soul, Bo Diddley is Rock N Roll.”
With an iconic cover art, a style that is even more revolutionary, and a lasting impression that spans over 17-total tracks, there is something special about Black On Both Sides. Something that reflects with the ear for hip-hop, the genre-morphing ability, and the love for music.