If Mos Def’s “Black On Both Sides” Came Out Today, It Might Be Considered The Blackest Album of All Time
On September 30, Solange released her third album, A Seat At The Table, to remarkably favorable reviews. Social media lit up like the Empire State Building at Christmas with folks proclaiming how woke and Black the album is. Interspersed with interludes speaking to the Black experience from her mother, father, and Master P, the album also includes songs like “Don’t Touch My Hair” and “F.U.B.U.”, which is really a song about a song about Blackness that white people can’t sing at the show, though I’ve been singing, “to all my niggas in the whole wide world…” for over a week now, so message received. Point is, Solange is here, and she kicked in the door waving the .44, and not just as Beyonce’s sister, but as a creative force in her own right (some may say moreso than her more famous sister, but that’s an unnecessary convo for another day).
“Cranes In The Sky” is the easy standout track on the album and it’s not about Blackness so much as its about overcoming personal adversity. But that song? Winner, winner, chicken dinner. On the real, it IS the perfect album to release for today. Solange’s album went number one on Billboard this week, with 72k units moved (with 46k actual sales). If that doesn’t make it clap, I don’t know what will.
This feat is not a surprise to me considering that unapologetic Blackness, or at least folks belief that they are unapologetically Black at all turns – another conversation for another day – is at an all time high, the rampant attacks on Black bodies by state-authorized entities, Trump’s ascendancy despite taking aim at every possible minority group to now include White women, and the way race has begun to rightly enter into conversations about everything, plus television shows showcasing the Black experience in new ways, an album that weaves messages about Blackness throughout is apt and timely.
Even the title, A Seat At The Table, speaks directly to where we are as a community. Solange dropped a winner. Salute to her, her vision, and her execution. Knowing what to release and when is half the battle of a successful campaign, the fact that Solange is an artist that its hard not to like based purely on her independence and because of how reachable she feels also helps. If you let Facebook tell it, Solange pretty much released a new age version of Marvin Gaye’s landmark album, What’s Going On? While she didn’t, I get why it’s being received so well. Which makes me realize that had Mos Def released Black On Both Sides today, it might be considered the Blackest album ever because it takes those unapologetic Black themes and spray paints them in Black while wearing a Black Timberland’s and Luke Cage’s hoodie walking down 125th Street in Harlem.
Let’s put a few things out there upfront: BOBS is a classic record. It already IS one of the greatest hip-hop records ever released. Even the songs that aren’t awesome (“New World Water” is a dud to me, but hoteps and conspiracy theorists alike are probably still listening to it and saying “see!?!?!” at alarming rates to everybody and nobody in particular) still manage to be more woke and better than 98 percent of the music that has been released from 1993 ‘til. Between the production, the samples used from artists like Fela Kuti and Roy Ayers (amongst others), breadth of subject matter, relatability, Mos Def’s lyricism, and its Blackness, the album is damn near flawless.
In May of 2015, I wrote this:
Easily one of my favorite albums of all time, BOBS opened up Black as fuck, stayed Black as fuck, got a tan, drank the sweet juice that was in the Black berries, then threw in rock ‘n roll JUST to make the point that it’s Blackness Versus Everybody.
(I could probably sell a Blackness Versus Everybody shirt today.)
BOBS took all the best qualities of every album in that previous post and put them into one album, and made it accessible. Mos Def is an artist’s artist. While a lot of his later albums haven’t connected, something I blame largely on his self-indulgence and the tension between giving people what they want and expecting your fans to grow with you, Mos has always been willing to take a chance on expanding the perception of Black music. “Rock n Roll” speaks directly to that on BOBS.
The album is full of songs about Blackness and the community and our standing in the world. And not just within the white supremacy framework, but internally. BOBS examines hip-hop as a genre and business, Blackness and its influence on the world, love, and overall, where we’ve come from to where we are (or were at that point). Not much has changed socially since 1999 (though technology seems to have increased a hundred thousand trillion fold) so all of the themes are still both relevant and necessary. Even a song that was built for radio, “Ms. Fat Booty” speaks about Black love, the chase of relationships, and ultimately how these things sometimes don’t work for various reasons, and it wasn’t the man in that case. It’s easy to see why Mos Def was so high on everybody’s list as a rapper, emcee, and artist.
He didn’t need to beat you over the head with Blackness for it to shine through on each and every song. You don’t have to say “I’m Black, y’all, I’m Black, y’all…” in order to know that Mos Def loves and cares about the Black community and is making an album for us, by us. The title, Black On Both Sides, sets up the pins and the songs bowl them over for what should be at least a 270 game.
In 2016, being Black has taken on new meaning. With movements alive and well and Blackness being on display in every conceivable way, from folks actively rocking dashikis again to “Black Excellence” t-shirts being seen all over, to young Black entrepreneurs, thinkers, scientists, creators, and writers creating spaces for us to exist without the need and validation of the “White man”, being Black is both filled with daily struggles and concerns while also feeling like we’re a community who wake up and say “I’m Black and I’m proud” like its 1968 all over again. And it all blends perfectly, let the liquor tell it.
It’s in that space that Solange’s album was received as such a testament to Blackness, not only for having Black themes but also for saying it plainly and addressing an aspect of the Black experience and eloquently expressing sentiments shared universally amongst us. Mos Def’s album is all of those things but double downs even further by directly addressing the theft of Black culture by some of the most famous white men like Elvis Presley and Limp Bizkit, people lauded who wouldn’t exist without Black culture. Songs like “Umi Says”, “Brooklyn” and “Know That” speak on who we are, where we are, and our spiritual rooting. It’s the type of Blackness on display that so much of the educated Black community revels in nowadays. It is all Black beauty. It’s similar to how beautiful that Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly is, though I’d argue that it’s, again, a more accessible album and takes it a step further. It’s a worthwhile debate though.
Solange released an R&B version for 2016 that speaks to so many folks for its unapologetic Blackness. Mos Def punches you in the face with its intentionality and an explicit focus on “my people, my people, my people people pe-people…”
Because of where we are now, Black On Both Sides is the album that speaks directly to our community. Even 17 years alter, it’s as grandiose a work of art as it was then. And if it dropped today, I’m fairly certain we’d be claiming it’s the Blackest album ever because of the times in which it was released.
Also, “Got” might be the realest hip-hop song ever released.
(1999) Mos Def for President.