Mos Def and Talib Kweli have been joined at the hip since 1998, when, as Blackstar, they led a lyrical resurgence that brought authentic hip-hop credibility back to Brooklyn rap. With their appealing combination of conscious rhymes, old-school influences, and new-school sensibilities, both were branded as “backpack” MCs, yet both harbored dreams of solo superstardom and mass appeal. Mos struck paydirt first, breaking out of the underground ghetto with his gold-selling debut Black on Both Sides, which balanced club bangers (“Ms. Fat Booty”) with ecocentric politics (“New World Water”). But after signing a deal with MCA, he was promptly shelved, spending his downtime building up his acting résumé. Meanwhile, Kweli collaborated with Cincinnati-based beatsmith Hi-Tek on the excellent Reflection Eternal, then brought in A-list producers and big-name guests for Quality, which lived up to its title, yet failed to generate Jay-Z-like sales numbers.
Now Mos and Kweli have dropped new material within weeks of each other, the former’s effort the more experimental and cutting-edge by a long shot. However, The New Danger‘s title might refer to what happens when a rapper tries to sing, and Mos’ fascination with hard rock and blues stylings — provided by his band, Black Jack Johnson — takes some getting used to. Still, this feels and sounds like the album Mos wanted to make, as opposed to the album his label wanted him to make. Its most notable cameo comes from the reclusive Shuggie Otis, who lays down a solid solo on “Blue Black Jack”; elsewhere, Mos discourses about everything from “The Panties” to “War,” and updates Grandmaster Melle Mel on the razor-sharp “Close Edge.”
On the other hand, The Beautiful Struggle‘s surprising genericness suggests that perhaps Kweli’s commercial aspirations were a bad idea. With his literate, wordy flow, he was born to be a backpack rapper, so why he gotta try to be sexy? It’s a kiss of creative death when an album has R&B and hip-hop duets with both Faith Evans and Mary J. Blige. Nothing here sounds remotely as anthemic as Quality‘s “The Proud” and “Get By,” or, for that matter, The New Danger’s “Sex, Love, and Money” and “Sunshine.” At least Mos ambitiously aims to represent the legacy of Kool Herc, Biggie Smalls, John Lee Hooker, and Bad Brains all at once. That isn’t really a new direction for black music, but certainly it’s not mundane.