A clear case for a clear mind

Mos Def's latest release comes without artwork, but the music itself is colorful

Megan Kadrmas

It was easy to miss the release of Mos Def’s fourth album, “True Magic,” because it dropped in stores during the abyss of New Year’s weekend. But the bigger reason might have to do with the album cover – or lack thereof. There is no cover art, no track list on the back and no booklet accompanying the album, just a clear case.

But the absent artwork forces focus onto Mos Def’s music, which is powerful and raw throughout and sometimes beautiful.

Mos Def
ALBUM: “True Magic”
LABEL: Geffen

The clear case ignited rumors that Def is fighting with his label, Geffen, and released the album in its current state to spite the big wigs. “True Magic” was released on a nontraditional Friday, which essentially condemns it to a quiet entrance into stores.

Although it sounds like Mos Def resisted making this album, the music is good and, for the most part, earnest. “True Magic” isn’t mediocre. The album has only a couple of real highlights -these songs set the bar high for the others to be compared to. Def doesn’t sound angry or resentful and puts his heart into the production of the album.

“True Magic” gets beats from the likes of The Neptunes, DJ Epic and others, including a group called Minnesota For Lifestyle Music. Other beats are recycled and thus, they sound familiar. For instance, “Undeniable” lifts a futuristic, top-notch beat from King Geedorah (who is more commonly known as MF Doom). “Crime and Medicine” uses one of the most addicting and flawless RZA beats. “Dollar Day” – also known as “Katrina Clap” – takes the background music from one of New Orleans’ own, Juvenile.

Although he samples these and other recognizable hip-hop songs, Def’s unique voice doesn’t flow as well with these beats as the vocals on the original songs. Mos Def sounds whiny and out of tune, especially on “Crime and Medicine.”

He also falls flat on “Dollar Day,” a highly political street report that sounds out of touch with the streets. Mos Def is known for his politically and socially-motivated messages, but this one simply sounds forced. The lyrics themselves are intriguing, but expect flashbacks to Kayne’s “George Bush doesn’t care about black people,” as the main focus of Mos’ criticisms in the song is Bush.

For example, Mos raps, “It’s dollar day in New Orleans/ It’s where water everywhere and babies dead in the streets/ It’s enough to make you holler out/ Like where the fuck is Sir Bono and his famous friends now/ Don’t get it twisted man, I dig U2/ But if you ain’t about the ghetto, then fuck you too/ Who cares about rock n’ roll when babies can’t eat food/ Listen homie that shit ain’t cool/ It’s like dollar day for New Orleans/ it’s where the water everywhere and homies dead in the streets/ and Mr. President’s a natural ass/ He out treatin’ brothers worse than they treat trash.” Although the lyrics look powerful, Mos puts no force behind his tirade.

The stand-out is “Undeniable,” which is unmistakably one of the album’s best tracks. It has earned a Grammy nomination, in part because of the beat, but more because Def’s nasally vocals make a damn cute couple with Doom’s robotic sounds.

The other shiny gem is “Sun, Moon, Stars,” which sounds like an updated version of 1960s psychedelic funk music. It features a hallucination-inspiring flute over a soulfully groovy bass, accompanied by simple lyrics and clapping.

“Sun, Moon, Stars” spirals to an end like an intense acid dream and leads into the disappointing “Murder of a Teenage Life.” This track was produced by hit-machine The Neptunes but rings a false note like “Dollar Day.” Again, Def sounds lackluster and hardly puts effort into the would-be emotional and intense lyrics.

Geffen plans to re-release a dressed up version of this surprisingly bare album with cover art, a booklet and the rest later this spring. Apparently the Grammy nomination caught the label by surprise, although it shouldn’t have, and now they need to hype up “True Magic.” The label has also made an attempt to squash the rumors of tension between artist and label.

The speculation surrounding the album has sparked interest on the Internet, but attention should be placed on the music, not on the drama. The stripped-down appearance of the album reflects the best part of it: Mos Def’s raw talent and the naked truth that “True Magic” hits almost every time.