I originally posted this on the site a few months ago when the Queen of Soul passed, but I did some house cleaning on the blog and had to re-post it. Please excuse any dated references. R.I.P. Aretha Franklin.
A few weeks ago I wrote that Tariq Trotter (a.k.a. Black Thought) is the GOAT MC. I stand by that, but he’s not quite my favorite MC. Yes, there’s a difference between being the best and being my favorite. That title belongs to the mighty Mos Def (known now as Yasiin Bey). If Black Thought is Jerry Rice, Mos Def is Randy Moss. He may not have 25 years of consistent greatness like Black Thought, but nobody is better than peak Mos Def. Mos had a hell of a ten-year run starting in the late 90’s. Universal Magnetic. Black Star. “Double Trouble” with The Roots. “Big Brother Beat” with De La Soul. Lyricist Lounge. Soundbombing. His performance of “Close Edge” on Chappelle’s Show that was Carpool Karaoke a decade before James Corden did it. I have yet to mention his solo albums.
My favorite Mos track is 1999’s “Ms. Fat Booty” from his classic album Black on Both Sides. The song is a tale him of falling for a girl named Sharice over the course of nine months, telling her he loves her, having her tell him “commitment is something she can’t manage” and leave him, then a week later having his friend tell him, “I saw Sharice at the Kitty Club with some bangin’ ass Asian playing lay it down and lick me up.” What?!? Amazing songwriting/storytelling and a shocking twist at the end. Yes, Mos was in love with a stripper long before T-Pain, and made a much better and more clever song about it.
Lyrics aside, the secret weapon in “Ms. Fat Booty” is the sample. The first voice you hear on that song is not Mos Def. It’s Aretha Franklin. I had been listening to the song for years before I finally got around to Googling “What song is sampled in ms fat booty?” The answer is a deep cut from 1965 called “One Step Ahead” by the Queen of Soul.
If you’re like me, you spent at least a part of the day today on Aretha’s iTunes Essentials burning through classics like “Respect”, “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”, and “Chain of Fools”. If you listened to any of that, you must have also been thinking, “Damn, that woman could sing.” She had a superhuman voice. Something she was just born with. Millions of other vocalists could try to sing her music. Some could even hit the notes and sound good. None of them sounded remotely like her. She was inimitable. “One Step Ahead” encapsulates that. Three minutes of Aretha effortlessly floating over strings and a haunting arpeggio. A perfect song that I’m guessing even a lot of Aretha fans missed.
Thanks to Mos Def and his producer, Ayatollah, for introducing a generation of hip hop fans to this song. I can’t fathom how someone heard it and thought, “This would make a dope track,” but they did it. More importantly, thanks to Aretha Franklin. A true legend in an era when words like “legend” are often attached to the unworthy. May the Queen of Soul rest in peace.