Mos Def/Talib Kweli: New York Roseland Ballroom

This is Mos Def making [i]real[/i] music, showing off a voice that's as good at wailing as it is at busting rhymes...

There are a lot of very confused and disappointed people in the house tonight. Which is too bad, considering they’re witnessing something remarkable. It just isn’t what they were expecting. Mos Def has unveiled his new rock band, Jack Johnson, for New York City, and he’s chosen the final stop of the Lyricist Lounge 2 tour to do it.

“People are sayin’ that hip hop killed rock ‘n’ roll,” the rapper is explaining to the crowd. “I’m sayin’ hip hop is motherfuckin’ rock n’ roll. I’m rock ‘n’ roll’s great grandson.” Aside from Mos Def, Jack Johnson includes former Living Color members Doug Wimbish and Will Calhoun, former Bad Brains guitarist Doctor Know and P-Funkster legend Bernie Worrell. Together, they deliver funk, reggae, rock and soul – just about everything except for actual hip hop.

Considering this is a crowd that went wild when rapper Xzibit made a surprise appearance on stage earlier in the evening to join Talib Kweli and Pharoahe Monch for a rousingly brutal version of ‘Down For The Count’, it wasn’t exactly surprising when they didn’t cheer with delight at Mos Def singing an altered version of The Police’s ‘Roxanne’, or Doctor Know’s wailing throwback guitar theatrics.

Kweli’s set was the other highlight of the evening, mostly spotlighting tracks off his recent release with Hi Tek, ‘Reflection Eternal’, including ‘Move Somethin” and ‘Eternalists’. But it’s Jack Johnson that’s truly captivating – from a musical point of view, at least, as they certainly aren’t keeping most of the crowd in the venue interested.

This isn’t Ice-T screaming over grinding guitars and calling it rock, this is Mos Def making real music, showing off a voice that’s as good at wailing as it is at busting rhymes. A super-extended version of ‘Ms. Fat Booty’ stretches out to include bits of The Temptations’ ‘Just My Imagination’ and Bob Marley’s ‘Waiting In Vain’, before an attempt to bring in the crowd to sing along.

Only problem is that this is the wrong crowd. Unfortunately, Mos Def appears to be having some sort of identity crisis these days, as he feels free to express himself through an outlet like Jack Johnson (the band is named after the first black heavyweight boxing champion), but then also feels the need to tell the crowd defensively at length that, “I’m a ghetto nigga, just like you. I’m from the ghetto. I represent the ghetto,” etc etc.

It’s clear that the rock gig is messing with his head a bit, and maybe tonight would have been a better time to stick to material off ‘Black On Both Sides’ and give the people what they came for. Regardless, when they play what seems to be the ‘Jack Johnson Theme’, for lack of a better term, and Mos Def works in an altered verse from The Beatles’ ‘Come Together’, it’s one of those moments where you realize (if you’re lucky) that you’re watching a rare performer with true artistic depth.

But, when Mos asks afterwards, “Y’all think the ghetto will be feeling that?” it’s pretty clear that the answer is “No”. That doesn’t mean the rest of us won’t be, though.

Doug Levy