Peggy Sirotal

I recall that a number of years back—around the time of The Black Album and Jay-Z's subsequent short-lived retirement—that XXL ran a piece listing their top 10 candidates for the next "King of New York." Clocking in at #10 was Dante Smith, AKA Mos Def—the crown jewel of the late '90s NYC underground, true heir to the legendary Native Tongues posse, and as evinced by his classic solo debut Black on Both Sides—one of the art form's most skilled and soulful. If Gotham rap, or all hiphop period, could actually take notes from his witty Black Moses B-boy stance as readily as it ate up Jay's coup du jour shit, it might just stand a chance.

Of course, Black Dante was making the Mos of an acting career he'd nurtured long since before anybody had heard "Universal Magnetic," and it was finally starting to pay off in spades. He was popping up in Monster's Ball, he was rocking with Ed Norton and Mark Wahlberg in The Italian Job, and he was even on Broadway in Topdog/Underdog. He was collecting props and awards that sitting on BET's couch with Big Tigger just couldn't match. Which might explain the half-ass music he started putting out.

The New Danger—its righteous rock 'n' roll reclamation with his band Black Jack Johnson—looked incredible on paper, but in reality it lacked the truthful clarity and the astonishing economy he'd previously exhibited. Disjointed and pretty damn indulgent at spots, the album squandered the hellafied promise of its mission statement; the stomping, Rubinesque single "Ghetto Rock." Mos' third album, True Magic, sported cheap-sounding production and was released without promotion or even cover art, marking it his blatant get-me-off-of-Geffen placeholder.

If Mos seemed epically distracted on these albums, it's hardly surprising given what was going on, but the bloodhounds trying to find the real could pick up Mos' fiery scent on some half-dozen fresh tracks from the period. In 2004 he collaborated with Immortal Technique on "Bin Laden," where he blames the Reagan Doctrine in Afghanistan and George W. for the 9/11 attacks. The Jay-Z jacking "The Rape Over," a savage 90-second dressing-down of the rap industry, was left off of the second pressing of The New Danger, as its reference to a "tall Israeli... running this rap shit" was a hardly veiled reference to Island Def Jam head Lyor Cohen. True Magic's "Dollar Day" (perhaps the most scathing statement regarding Hurricane Katrina's horrific aftermath that hiphop has yet mustered) was debuted guerilla-style, on a flatbed truck outside of the 2006 Video Music Awards, sans permits. As NYPD brusquely shut down the performance and cuffed the sloganeering emcee, MTV execs were inside Radio City Music Hall fawning over Justin Timberlake.

Mos Def's been performing new joints recently from his upcoming LP, The Ecstatic, which has been said to have tracks produced by Madlib, Kanye, Dilla, and more. With such talents invested, I expect nothing less than his best—as the first emcee on the Roots' darkly brilliant Rising Down LP, he perfectly set the tone. "Every anywhere heights plains peaks or valleys/Entrances exits vestibules and alleys," black and brown folks are under siege, so are we all—that's the real reason he's seemed too distracted to hiphop fans, because, as somebody once said, what's going on is far bigger than all that. Most definitely.