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In a perfect world, iced-out thug Nelly and boho griot Mos Def would cameo on each other’s records. But black men profit just as much as everyone else from imagining themselves in compartmentalized solar systems, so St. Louis–born Nelly and Brooklyn-born Mos remain hip-hop doppelgängers. Though cut from different cloth, they’re both iconoclasts, pushing hip-hop culture to its limits by refusing its tyranny of stylistic insularity.
Nelly first branded his Afro-Midwest jive on 2000’s “Country Grammar” and “E.I.,” puff ‘n’ grind tunes that reminded us hip-hop had roots in Shirley Ellis nonsensicality before “The Message” made urban reality a priority. “Dilemma,” a sensitive 2002 duet with Kelly Rowland, suggested Nelly had been harboring a beta male underneath that rippled musculature. He now faced a real dilemma: how to maintain his crunk fan base without forsaking newfound Ruffneck Romeo devotees. Riffing and ripping off OutKast, Universal has released Nelly’s third and fourth studio albums simultaneously: the uptempo PG-13 of Sweat and slow jams and “refined” themes of Suit.
The albums’ chiaroscuric packaging, marked by a.m.-p.m. poses, projects a double consciousness onto Nelly’s flashy image that makes the project appear more sophisticated than it is. Anchored by predigested melodic hooks, Nelly’s songs seem composed with the sole intention of ending up as your next ringtone. Some offerings, like the underproduced “Spida Man,” crumble due to that simplistic approach. Others, like “Flap Your Wings”—which coasts on the Neptunes’ climbing chromatic-scale motif and conga-fied rhythm track—are addictive.
Less pitch-challenged than pop-thug shower singer Ja Rule, Nelly’s developed a unique brand of recitative that draws as much from Bone Thugs’ singsong cadence as it does from military roll calls and frat hollas. On Sweat‘s ’70s funkfest “Tilt Ya Head Back,” Nelly outvocalizes showboater Christina Aguilera, and he does good next to velvety Jaheim on Suit‘s wistful “My Place.”
A&R director Kevin Law has invited most of his Rolodex on board for guest appearances—everyone from Aguilera to Mobb Deep to Ron Isley to Stephen Marley—but the end product rarely seems genetically engineered. So what if these records were cooked up in a marketing meeting? Nelly is reaffirming black music’s diversity at a time when the grab-bag, relativist playlists of Clear Channel and iTunes are becoming the norm. Anyone crazy enough to sample John Tesh’s NBA theme (“Heart of a Champion”) and kick rhymes with country dude Tim McGraw (“Over and Over”) is keepin’ it surreal, celebrating inauthenticity while adding new hues to thug palettes everywhere.
As ironically redolent as Nelly, Mos Def is an underground beatnikka who’s cross-marketed himself through Broadway, film, and TV ventures to become a champion of alternative pop culture. Mos stays edgier and trickier than Renaissance Negroes like Jamie Foxx because he knows that you know that he knows the mainstream is corrupted at its core. On The New Danger, his first major-label release, Mos serves up his usual dissident, 4 a.m. intellect, spitting choked-up lyrics with a messianic fervor. “War” takes no prisoners: “Palestine, Kosovo, Kashmir/No different than the avenues right here/An increase in the murder rate each year/Paramilitary unit keep the streets clear.” But grating moments like the Kanye-produced “The Rape Over”—a toothless, ranting satire of Jay-Z’s “The Takeover” that lists white men, cocaine, Hennessy, and “quasi-homosexuals” as accessories to hip-hop’s murder—remind us that Mos Def ain’t no Cornel West.
Frustrated with rap’s stagnation, Mos turns to jazz and rock, debuting Black Jack Johnson, his dream-team band featuring Bernie Worrell and Will Calhoun. Bandleader Mos doesn’t have the musical chops to fuck up hip-hop the way beboppers manipulated classical technique to fuck up swing. Though they use rock instrumentation as stylistic garnish rather than cultural ammunition, songs like “Zimzaballin” and “Ghetto Rock” still sound grimy and urgent. A couple of creative notches below 2000’s gleaming Black on Both Sides, The New Danger still gets kudos for being the riskiest album ever released by an MC-as-media-cynosure—for whatever that’s worth.
Hip-hop’s recent experimental forays go only so far. Boogie men and war are worthy topics for Mos Def, but you’ll never hear him make more than a passing, implicit reference to being a father or a devout Muslim. In Nelly’s universe there’s no need to rhyme about sour topics like war when hard work nets you the American dream and chicks with “Pretty Feet” roam the earth. But Nelly closes Suit with two heartwarming tunes, “Nobody Knows” and “Die for You,” the former about faith and the latter about his unwavering love for his children.
The Boho Renegade and the Pop Thug are archetypes rooted in performance, each exposing as much as it conceals. Each image needs the other. Conscious heads and crunk fiends keep trying to make just one type real. Compared to what?