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Music Review: Mos Def – “Undeniable”

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I recently got my hands on a copy of Mos Def’s new album, which wasn’t nearly as exciting as it would have been back in about 2002 or so. New Danger was horrible and he really hasn’t been all that good since he did Black Star with Talib Kweli. I really like his acting, I think he’s a very positive and important rapper, and he seems like a great guy, but the recent albums have sucked. That’s just the way it is.

However, when I saw that the track “Undeniable” had been nominated for a Grammy for best hip-hop record and was rumored to be a Kanye production, I had a whole new reason to give Tru3 Magic a spin. Imagine my disappointment then when I hit play only to discover this is a song has already been done before.

Now, I understand that this sort of thing happens all the time in hip-hop. Sampling is a staple element of the genre, dating back to when rap music consisted of an MC making various pronouncements while a DJ played existing records. The music came from sampling, so it makes sense that it plays a prominent role. I have absolutely nothing against the practice. I am also fine with various forms of imitation (Game and his Black Wall Street producers imitating Dre on Doctor’s Advocate is one example), “borrowing” (like when Lupe used Kanye’s “Diamonds” beat for “Conflict Diamonds” and then Kanye turned around and used Lupe’s theme on “Diamonds From Sierra Leone”), and even blatant copying (see: Khari rapping on an Erick Sermon track that he would “walk through hell with gasoline drawers on” only to have both Mullyman and Young Jeezy use the same line on mixtapes this year).

The one thing I’m not ready to endorse is a blatant rip-off being nominated for a freaking Grammy.

“Undeniable” is a track that makes no bones about sampling, which is fine. From the “no matter how hard you try, you can’t stop us now” chorus to the sparse, synthesized guitar pluck, Mos Def takes all of the best elements of the Temptations track “Message From a Black Man” and spins it into a modern, bluesy rap song. For a true aficionado of soul music, “Undeniable” probably feels like something caught between an homage and an act of highway robbery, but the overall effect for most critics is that Mos Def is incorporating both message and mood while offering a nod to important music of the past. It doesn’t hurt his cause that he sings on the song and says things like “always be cool” and “always be you.” I’m sure the folks tabbing Grammy nominees love that stuff. Me? I’d pay a pretty large sum for the assurance that Mos Def would never sing again.

But I digress. Because the problem here isn’t that he sings, or mails in the lyrics, or spends the last 70 seconds just yelling out random comments, or even that he made a fairly obvious remake of a Temptations song. The problem is that we already have a remake of “A Message From a Black Man.” Ill Bill of the group Non Phixion featured a song titled “Unstoppable” on his 2004 release What’s Wrong With Bill? and if you give it a listen you will hear the same chorus, the same beat (albeit a little faster), the same everything from “Undeniable” … except that the Ill Bill version is probably better.

“Unstoppable” isn’t even one of the best tracks from that album, but Ill Bill’s tenacious, angry flow is the update to “Message From a Black Man” that the song demanded, even if it wound be being a Message From a White Man. For that matter, even the use of the “no matter how hard you try” riff in the Rage Against the Machine song “Renegades of Funk” felt more appropriate than this pop-infused mess that Mos Def is slinging. (By the way, would you believe that this isn’t even the worst transgression of production laziness on Tru3 Magic? Mos also raps over a Juvenile track for one song and then butchers a glorious GZA track on another.)

I doubt many people responsible for handing out Grammy’s know who Ill Bill is so I guess I can’t blame them for being complete suckers, but take one listen to “Unstoppable” and then switch over to Mos Def’s “Undeniable” and you tell me which track is better. I can already tell you which one is more original.

What is undeniable is that this song is a total rip-off.

The Score: 6.

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About Adam Hoff

  • http://www.getyouroj.com Jason Meltzer Patterson

    Do you not realise this is an album soley made to get out of a record contract with Geffen? You make some good observations, you just don’t seem aware of the reason no one including Mos cares if this album sucks or not. As far as the Grammy people.. well.. what do they know anyway? they are dated fools.

  • http://www.getyouroj.com Jason Meltzer Patterson

    Oh, man, I had to return just to say this. No disresect, but THE NEW DANGER did not suck!!!

    I wonder what you consider good?

  • http://rashadlogic.wordpress.com Rashadlogic

    Mos Def has the most boring collection of albums, ever. Even , “Undeniable”, got nominated for the Grammy’s, but I think it’s because of the poor selectin. Let’s be honest, who the hell is going to vote for a song that they never even heard of: no music video, no radio play.

    I think he was last minute entry, just to fill the last spot.

  • http://rashadlogic.wordpress.com Rashadlogic

    Oh, and check out Styles P new joint. I got my “Advance Copy” early, heh.

  • j

    You’re all fools – this album is nuts! One of my favourite right now. Mos Def puts most MCs to shame with effortless flow!

  • RobbieK

    Listen to Black on Both Sides….
    then listen to it AGAIN…

    THEN REALISE MOS HAS EARNED NUFF RESPECT

  • saucy

    i don’t think the he is denieing the fact that mos used to rock “Black on both sides” and “black star” both imo are classics. but from then on it’s been down hill for him, all his music has turned too preachy and less fun. sometimes i also wonder how non blacks could listen to his stuff he seems a bit hung over the race issue,I’m a black guy mind u.

  • Carlinhos

    Jason, obviously dont gots none taste, brotherface. How did the New Danger not suck? You like faux angry rock? You betta off listening to reissued Body Count rekkidz. Your tastelessness is evident.

  • Shei

    please so it ain’t so…i just got put on to Mos def about a year ago and i luved B.O.B.S…please don’t tell me this album sucks…i have been waiting for this for too long

  • Bryn

    Black On Both Sides is unarguably a classic hip-hop album. Now, granted, Mos’ last two albums have been quite short of his debut effort, but they are still leaps and bounds ahead of the vast majority of less gifted rappers.

  • http://Mando Mando

    Obviously Mos didnt put the effort into this record, it shows. But the sad thing for hip hop is this is still better than 95% of the shit that will come out this year. New danger is sick what are you people saying????

  • Brooklyn Bigups

    ADAM HUFF, are u a white man? where were u raised in Montana? something like that? I love it when people like u who study Hip Hop, probably took a class on it – start to critize technicalities,compared to what’s out there True Magic is like a breath of fresh air MOS DEF=HIP HOP

  • http://www.antequeravillarental.com Christopher Rose

    Brooklyn Bigups, are u a hu man? Where were you raised, on Planet Earth? Somewhere like that? I love it when people like you study humans, probably took a class on it – start to criticise and make quasi-racist remarks…

  • Brooklyn Bigups

    Go brush your teeth, Elvis stoled black people’s music.
    By the way “Undeniable” was not a Kanye production, how typical to assume that.

  • http://www.antequeravillarental.com Christopher Rose

    Yeah, but “black people” “stoled” “white people”‘s music before that. Not a lot of “people” know that!

  • Andrea

    I am crazy about Mos Def both as a actor and rapper. Coming from a gal in Calgary, AB. Canada!!
    Mos is real, keep it coming Mos!!!

  • Silky Johnson

    I’ve been a Mos fan for over a decade, I’ve listen to everything outta his catalogue and this album to me doesn’t deserve the applause asociated with B.O.B.S but this album does represent where Mos is at this stage of his life. I saw him live 3 years ago at the Docks in T.O he showed up 3 hours late exhausted but still busted his Ass on stage and made the house rock, leaving everyone in the audience with a sense that there is some goodness left in Hip Hop. True Magic didn’t come out guns blazing like people want, there isn’t a fear not of man to get your heart racing but there is a reflective and deary attitude that comes right from his heart and struggles over the last 3 years. I get enough from this album knowing it’s sincere and not primped to move a few more units to people who don’t give a fuck about the man, his cause and his background.

    PEace From

    HAm-Town, ON

  • http://www.casasoy.blogger.com casa soy

    I completely agree with you about the new danger. I consider myself a huge mos def fan, but that album was flat out boring (save a couple of good tracks). I am only annoyed by 3 minutes vocals with a delay that follows the BPM of the song, lame. anyway, to comment on “undeniable” I found this article because I heard an MF Doom song that used the EXACT same sample and hook. I’m not sure of the title, unfortunately, but apparently it’s a popular riff.