Though the news that Mos Def’s third album was being pulled from shelves in order to release a slightly different, fully packaged version was bizarre and probably unprecedented, it was hardly surprising. True Magic as it was initially issued is quite possibly the worst record by a great emcee in recent memory. The packaging-devoid of anything but a label on the actual disc-had more thought put into it than this tossed aside collection of B-sides and D-sides. The fact that the record runs fifty minutes is surprising, because it means the emcee-turned-actor must have spent at least that much time recording the record. I doubt it was much longer.
After beginning his career with a group record (1998’s Black Star) and a solo debut (1999’s Black on Both Sides) that were as challenging and promising as any beginning, Mos decided to become an actor (something he’d actually pursued while he was younger). He toured with a rock band, starred in a few bad movies and released the tragically uneven The New Danger (2004), am album that sounds like Illmatic next to this monstrosity. His career continued to decline: An artist who seemed to pour his entire soul into his music had been reduced to starring in Bruce Willis action movies, a feat only surpassed in its sell-out beauty by Common’s Gap commercials.
The one redeeming aspect of True Magic is the rumor, which everyone hopes is true, that Mos recorded the album to get out of his contract with Geffen, and that he will soon return from the ashes to release the album everyone has been waiting for over the past seven years. There are a few indications of this: The best (or rather, bearable) songs on the album, like the Katrina-influenced “Dollar Day,” were not created specifically for it. And only someone who tossed off a track would think they could get away with “Crime and Medicine,” which simply lifts the beat and hook from GZA’s “Liquid Swords” in full.
But ultimately, it’s the unknowing consumer who loves and respects Mos who gets screwed here, not Geffen, which made a cheap record with cheap packaging and no promotion in order to cash in just a little bit more on an artist who didn’t want to produce music for that label anyway. Now that the record is being pulled, we can only hope that Mos will scratch most of it completely and issue an album that actually lives up to his talent and potential. Like so many of the promising black artists of the turn of the millennium (D’Angelo, Erykah Bady, fellow Black Star Talib Kweli), his recent work has seemed unfocused and increasingly lacks direction. Though an artist as challenging and intelligent as Mos Def would never completely fall off, this is one possible icon who could use some inspiration to achieve his full potential.