Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Track Review: Mos Def's "Undeniable"

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. The 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 that this is a song that 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.

No comments: