Register Monday | June 24 | 2019

In Extremis

Reading Mos Def

Mark Anthony Neal’s book New Black Man (2006), makes the case for a black masculinity that “takes lessons from the progressive politics of the black feminist movement.”  Neal’s final chapter, “‘Ms. Fat Booty’ and the Black Male Feminist,” discusses the at-times tense relationship between his vision of “a black feminist manhood” and hip-hop, which he loves but which can often be the embodiment of some ugly attitudes.

In particular, Neal uses his affection for Mos Def’s “Ms. Fat Booty” (from Black on Both Sides, released in 1999)— “one of my favorite hip-hop songs period”—as the occasion for an uncomfortable question. Is “Ms. Fat Booty” a celebration of “black female physicality,” or another example of hip-hop’s “gratuitous vulgarities”?

For my purposes here, Neal’s answer is irrelevant. What I’d like to do is challenge the very basis of the question and reveal how “Ms. Fat Booty”— when freed from Neal’s narrow critical purview— is a far more complicated lyrical effort.

Before we start, check out the youtube video of the song. And here are the song’s lyrics.

Who or what is the subject of this song? I would argue that it’s only ostensibly about the eponymous “Ms. Fat Booty,” a.k.a. “Sharice.” The lyric, instead, is about a young man's realization that the female object of his desire is equally capable of desiring objects with a ruthlessness often perceived to be unique to men:

In she came with the same type game
The type of girl givin’ out the fake cell phone and name [. . .]
Let her know sweetheart I got to have it
She tellin’ me commitment is somethin’ she can't manage [. . .]

The speaker’s (Mos Def’s) own “game” is reflected back to him, thus unsettling his sense of self and masculinity; and this is further compounded by the fact that it’s she— not he!— who can’t “commit” to a long term relationship. Attendant upon his recognition is a feeling of complete powerlessness. This powerlessness reaches its expressive apotheosis through a key reference to Roman Polanski’s Frantic (to which I will return shortly).

“Ms. Fat Booty” begins with two spliced samples — synthesized into a single 4-measure phrase (twice repeated) — from Aretha Franklin’s “One Step Ahead”:          

I know
I can't afford to stop
for a moment
that it's too soon
to forget

Franklin’s voice embodies Sharice’s perspective. The economic connotations of “I can’t afford to stop” certainly correspond with Mos Def’s description later of Sharice as a woman interested exclusively in material things: “jewels chip money clip phone flip the six range.” Sharice is later described as “[spotting]” Mos Def “like paparazzi.” She’s looking to hit “click” and cash in. That’s a less than flattering description, of course.

But it’s against this presentation of Sharice that the Aretha sample takes on greater import. The sample is meant to introduce Sharice’s motivations; it adds depth to action. We might paraphrase “I can’t afford to stop” as “If I don’t get some money I might not be able to survive in this world”— in other words, to “stop” means to “die.” Her materialism is, at least, contextualized. Sharice lives in the now, not looking to any future. She concerned with the contingency of the present. Love, of course, is the primary threat to her “now”-ness. Why? It would trump her economic imperatives and make her vulnerable. Against love-as-such she deploys the past or memory: “it’s too soon / to forget.” What is “it”? “It” could be many things: a past love lost, difficult childhood living conditions, an absent father, some sort of sexual trauma, etc. Whatever “it” is, she remembers it so as to chill herself to the warm notion of innocently opening herself to the prospect of real intimacy.

With all that said, the Aretha sample might serve double-duty in also representing Mos Def’s thinking. Given that at other junctures in the song Mos Def’s “indirect” lyric performance ventriloquizes Sharice (“Yo, let me apologize for the other night I know it wasn't right but baby you know what it’s like / Some brothers don't be comin’ right”), it’s certainly possible that Aretha is also indirectly voicing Mos Def, too. In this case, Mos Def’s lyric illustrates what happens when one goes against what one “knows” (i.e. reason). He “knows” he “can’t afford,” literally and figuratively, to love Sharice (to stop playing “the game”), but he dares nonetheless to go against what he knows. He gives himself up to the prospect of love totally, irrationally, with this emotional investment having serious ramifications:

THREE months! She call I feel I'm runnin’ a fever
SIX months! I'm tellin’ her I desperately need her
NINE months! Flu-like symptoms when shorty not around
I need more than to knock it down I'm really tryin’
to lock it down

His sickness is the product of his inability to do anything more than have Sharice sexually: he can “knock it” (sex) but he can’t “lock it” (love). “Lock it” provides a nice homophonic pun on “locket”: Sharice easily captures (or “locks”) Mos Def (“like paparazzi”), while he can do no such thing— she leaves no visual trace of her existence or her relation to him. 

Ultimately, one isn’t surprised when at the song’s finale Sharice picks up and moves on. “Wake up the next morning she gone like it was magic,” says Mos Def.

Ah damnit! This all Harrison Ford Frantic
My 911 wasn't answered by my fly Taurus enchantress
Next week who hit me up I saw Sharice at the kitty club with
some bangin’-ass Asian playin’ lay it down and lick
me up

The key to the speaker’s ultimate condition is the allusion to Frantic, a 1988 film directed by Roman Polanski. In that film, Harrison Ford plays Richard Walker, an American Heart Surgeon in Paris. It’s a fitting irony, of course, that it’s a heart surgeon against which Mos Def figures his own broken-hearted self. In the film, Ford’s wife— in the song, Sharice— suddenly disappears, leaving Ford alone and, moreover, linguistically alienated (he’s an English speaker in a foreign place). Frantic is a suspense film, and the disappearance of Sharice in “Ms. Fat Booty” leaves Mos Def hanging, emotionally.

But the final blow comes in the lyric’s end couplet (quoted above). What was understood about Sharice’s character and motivation from the start hasn’t changed; what’s changed is the speaker’s relation to her. Now he “knows” that, sadly, there may be no getting outside of the “game”: Sharice, quite easily, without much regret (it appears), has picked up and moved on.