(Flow 7.5, Lyrics 10, Distinctiveness/Originality 9, Charisma 9, Consistency 8, Longevity 9, Punchlines 8.5, Subject Matter 10, Quality 9, Influence/Popularity 9)
When I showed people that Mos Def was on my list there was initial shock of seeing his name over the so-called “big” names of hip-hop. But no one actually complained about it. Mos Def has been around far longer than you realize and he has been excellent pretty much the whole time.
Mos Def has decades of hot collaborations, some really impressive albums and unlike most rappers, a really strong acting career. While many call themselves an actor if they can manage a few straight to DVD films, Mos Def (now known as Yasiin Bey) stars in hundred million dollar films, and actually plays different characters instead of merely himself. (I’m looking at you, Ice Cube.)
If I could apply a broad brush here, Mos Def is a humanist, an empathic figure in a decidedly callous genre. Hip-hop is the direct descendant of the blues, but the version that is most visible distills away nearly everything else except the violence, swagger and rebelliousness of its forefather. And then there is Mos Def journeying to the slums of the City of God to see how other people live to understand how to help them better, or enduring the horrors of waterboarding on video. Where some artists live in an artificial bubble that eventually separates them from their audience, rendering their work a strange parody of everyday life, Mos Def remains relevant and fascinating.
But it’s more than that. He has more charisma than Rakim, Black Thought, or G Rap, is a better lyricist than Tupac, Busta or Snoop Dogg, is more diverse than BIG, Eminem or Big Pun, has had more consistently good work than Jay-Z, and had has more overall success than Slick Rick and Pharoahe Monch. Mos Def is a legit number three.
His music is thoughtful and diverse and sometimes, (well, often) wonderfully weird, and there isn’t enough of that in hip-hop. We desperately need more Mos Defs.