If hip hop's obsession with the unholy trinity of guns, loot, and hos has made millions for record companies and given many of its affluent consumers a voyeuristic look at a life they'll never know, this focus also highlights hip hop's preoccupation with the here and now. But since the beginning, hip hop has also offered a way to think outside the present situation. Brooklyn-bred Mos Def stands among the MCs creating a vision of hip hop beyond materialism and violence.
The mighty Mos Def emerged in 1998 with Talib Kweli as Black Star. Their self-titled debut's positivity and black pride pleased critics and audiences across the color divide. Mos Def's breakthrough came a year later, with the solo debut Black on Both Sides. Only three months before the turn of the millennium, the album landed on dozens of critics' top 10 lists for the year, decade, and century, making Mos the heir apparent to conscious rappers like A Tribe Called Quest, the Roots, and De La Soul.
Steeped in jazz, funk, and low-key grooves, it offered a redeeming vision. Digging at the black roots of white music, Mos riffed in "Hip Hop," "Kenny G ain't got no soul/ John Coltrane is rock 'n' roll/ You may dig on the Rolling Stones/ But they could never ever rock like Nina Simone." Mos battled the odds stacked against the inner city in "Mathematics": "This new math is whippin' motherfuckers' ass/ You wanna know how to rhyme you better learn how to add." Mos also played many of the album's live instruments and produced a handful of the tracks.
Since Black on Both Sides, the multitalented rapper has collaborated with Charlie Hunter, Femi Kuti, Jill Scott, Spike Lee, and others. After taking lyrical potshots at Limp Bizkit, Mos assembled his own rap-rock hybrid, Black Jack Johnson. Next year will be a busy one for Mos, with a new solo album, a Black Star release, and Black Jack Johnson's debut all expected. Out from the underground, he's still looking ahead.