Review Summary: For all of my peoples, negroes and latinos…and even the gringos
To truly understand Black on Both Sides in the way it is intended one must first realize Mos Def’s (I will from here on refer to the artist as Yasiin Bey, his chosen name) initial success in Black Star.
The Black Star movement is interesting on a series of levels. It opposes the very foundations on which it’s built.
There would be no Black Star without the East/West rivalry, these two young black poets had reached boiling point. In the wake of Christopher Wallace’s death, the two dropped their then ongoing projects to take the power back. They finally had the hiccup to make their voices heard. In perhaps the most crucial time in the genre, they pioneered to shift the attention back to what this art form could cultivate. Black Star as a movement is personal, it’s a quest for peace in hip-hop, it’s a rally to bring perspective to a young black audience, then caught up in the danger and excitement of living vicariously through these two supreme figures of east and west. It’s less about Yasiin and Talib and more about two good Samaritans whom at the time thought they had a duty to their people of the past, the present and the future.
Taking what he’d learned from Black Star, Bey returned to his once benched debut, Black On Both Sides.
Yasiin Bey’s artistry lies in his lyrics. He’s a poet, first and foremost. Every ounce of brilliance (The level of brilliance is subject to debate however the acceptance that brilliance is apparent is universal) that Bey provides on this record stems from his skills as a writer. What warrants Black on Both Sides the nomination of the title ‘classic’* is both in part the combination of the artists personal ideology and each producer that were able to meditate along to Bey’s vision and use it as the structure of their own personal creative route to propel it. The reason this piece can even be discussed on this level is not in full credit to the artist but to his support base who cultivated his idea as much as Bey did himself.
*The notion of a thing being ‘classic’ in this particular sense is rooted in the essence that thing is ‘timeless’.
Sampling as an art form had taken phenomenal strides in the genre by this point. Ayatollah deserves equal parts credit for his work on Ms. Fat Booty
much like DJ Premier (of Gang Starr fame) on the B single Mathematics
. Time has proven these two tracks to be the ambassadors for the album as a whole, which comes as no surprise with hindsight, both songs delivering the exact yin, and yang this album begs and succeeds to deliver.
The former a narrative in the form of a memoir; a playful reenactment of a time in which the narrator met a woman and the events that followed told to what we can assume is an audience of peers. Clever and memorable lyrics are peppered throughout accompanied with impressive and simple sampling of a then forgotten song by Aretha Franklin.
The latter is an introspective recap of both 90s paranoia and life as a young African living in America. This really is the last 10 years, summed up by the artist. The way the song is structured; using consecutive numbers to build his rhymes never passing the number 10 is indirect proof of this. This song, due to delivery, content and production give it an instant advantage in terms of accessibility to this record and whilst as a stand alone piece it works at supreme levels, in the context of the entity as a whole its far more poignant.
My Grandmamma was raised on a reservation
My Great-grandmamma was, from a plantation.
They sang songs for inspiration
They sang songs for relaxation
Enough time has elapsed for opinions to be formed of debatably the most important track on this record. Rock ‘N’ Roll has been dubbed ‘overtly black’, ‘racist’, ‘and excessive’. Opinions such as these are detrimental in the understanding of the artists’ direction with a track like Rock ‘N’ Roll
. This is a piece that Bey as an artist felt the absolute need to create. This is the artist challenging what he believes to be a part of him stolen away. This is the artist fighting to take back what he believes to be his. Then, not only to reinforce his thought on the matter but to cement it into reality Psycho Les of The Beatnuts fame shifts production and he and Bey deliver an aggressive explosion of hidden musicality that could be used to describe the essence of rock ‘n’ roll and especially punk rock itself.
The songs on the record that are important to the artist and thus important to the listeners experience overall is apparent in the passion injected into half of these songs (Brooklyn, Mathematics, Rock ‘N’ Roll, Hip-Hop
) are supplemented with not filler tracks, but instead a satisfyingly complete instrumental closing track and an invigorating opening speech. Black on Both Sides is as much of an album as it is documentation. It’s documentation of the solidifying of the shift of hip-hop from the violence and drug culture that traveled along with it in the 90s. It was the fresh start that hip-hop deserved, whether anything cultivated immediately following it was redundant. The artists’ message was clear, take your ammunition and stop pointing at your own army.