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Artist: Mos Def
Album: Black On Both Sides
Label: Rawkus
Production: Mos Def, Diamond, 88 Keys, Ayatollah, Mr Khaliyl, David Kennedy, Ali Shaheed Mohammed, Psycho Les, Etch-A-Sketch, Ge-ology, D-Prosper, DJ Premier
Guests: Busta Rhymes, Talib Kweli, Q-Tip, Vinia Mojica, Weldon Irvine
Stats: 1999; 17 tracks at 71mins:27secs

Artist: Pharoahe Monch
Album: Internal Affairs
Label: Rawkus
Production: DJ Scratch, Pharoahe Monch, Lee Stone, The Alchemist, Diamond
Guests: Canibus, M.O.P., Busta Rhymes, Apani B Fly MC, Prince Poetry, Common, Talib Kweli, Lady Luck, Redman, Method Man, Shabaam Sahdeeq
Stats: 1999; 15 tracks at 53mins:22secs
Reviewed by: Eitan Prince

These albums by Mos Def and Pharoahe Monch are probably Rawkus Records' highest profile releases ever. Both albums feature slick packaging, with neat high quality design - almost as if these were ... heaven forbid, commercial rap releases! Well, on the one hand we have Mos Def - champion of the underground, and Mr Charisma if ever there was one, who speaks with a niceness that was once the defining characteristic of the Native Tongue, Q-Tip. On the other hand we have Pharoahe Monch - one half of the duo Organized Konfusion - the underrated, subterranean emcee emerging from the depths of underground recognition and simultaneous mainstream neglect. In a sense both albums are attempts at giving 'underground' voices commercial exposure. Pharoahe Monch's attempt finds him attacking the dance floor, with the anthem-like "Simon Says", while Mos Def, has pinned his hopes on the sonically pleasing rap love tale, "Ms Fat Booty". Both albums feature collaborations with the ultra-commercial Busta Rhymes. The question then is, are these artists able to maintain their integrity and creative reputations, despite their omission of the underground tag? The answer is an unequivocal YES!

"Black On Both Sides" is Mos Def's flawless piece of work, that exceeds all of his previous material, and has probably set new standards for future Hip Hop releases. Let me state this bluntly then: this is fucking good music. Mos Def does not let the listener down at any stage, constructing every track with particular purpose resulting in well-crafted songs that are either entertaining or thought-provoking, and sometimes both.

When reviewing an album chock-full with back to back high quality tracks, it is hard to isolate particular moments for special mention - especially when the songs work together so well. However, I will elaborate on some of my favourites. The Diamond D produced, "Hip Hop", is one of those tracks you can't help but feel. Mos presents this as both a praise of Hip Hop culture as well as an assessment of the state of the Hip Hop nation: "Hip Hop went from selling crack to smoking it". It's tracks such as these that fully depict Mos Def's maturation from a Universal Magnetic B-Boy to the complete MC. On, "New World Water", for example, Mos uses the theme of H2O, to construct a stream of social commentary that examines water conservation, capitalist society and the poor state of developing countries. And just to show that he not only a thinker, but also a multi-faceted musician, Mos Def sings and plays instruments on the album. On "Umi Says" Mos croons his lungs out without it sounding like an attempt to crossover to an R&B audience. He then joins voices with the sensual tones of Vinia Mojica, to create the eerie-sounding, acid-jazz driven "Climb". The height of Mos's creativity however, is evident in his ode to Brooklyn, a musical masterpiece, which combines three different musical backgrounds that blend into one beautiful and yet bangin' euphonious offering.

There is little doubt that this album marks the coming of age of Mos Def, while in the case of Pharoahe, it's a progression from underground anonymity to mainstream consciousness.

"Internal Affairs" is an eclectic mixture of club treats ("Simon Says", "Right Here", "The Next Shit"), thug-influenced bangers ("No Mercy", "Behind Closed Doors"), and introspective tracks, such as "The Truth" which features fellow underground stalwarts, Common and Talib Kweli. However, Pharoahe Monch really shines on the lyrically innovative tracks (Rape, Official and God Send - with Prince Poetry), when he shows off his vocal dexterity and intricate rhyme patterns: "I snatch the kick, kick the snares, sodomize the bassline/Never waste time, I give the verse rabies/Cum on the chorus, tell the hook to swallow my babies" (Rape). Strangely, in deciding on the standout track, I find myself turning to "The Light", which is an awkward love ballad produced by DITC's Diamond D. It is within this clumsy, off-key Frankenstein-like musical creation, that this track realises its beauty.

Overall, Pharoahe ditches much of the personality that made him a favourite with subterranean heads in his OK days, instead he comes off somewhat thugged out, while opting for relentlessly pumping beats to accompany his lyrical acrobatics. In some senses, Monch's harder attitude allows for less closeness between emcee and listener and may turn off long-standing fans.

As a combination these two albums are possibly amongst the best released by Rawkus. Although both albums won't be considered classics ten years from now, Rawkus gets 10 out of 10 for releasing two quality albums in such a short space of time.
Mos Def: [10/10]; Pharoahe Monch [8.5/10]

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