Mos Def is probably one of the most inaccessible MCs of all time. Despite getting consistent props as one of the nicest, he often spits rhymes in long chains of syllables, like Black Thought. In a way these are the rhythms of Rakim and Kool G. Rap, sanded for slickness and updated with melody. With stylistic jumps from boom bap to rock throughout his career, Mos Def’s legacy will probably never crystallize beyond being an abnormally talented wordsmith with a nonlinear trajectory. That doesn’t mean he won’t remain one of the genre’s unsung heroes.
Recently Mos announced that he’ll be retiring this year with one last album, and though a rapper has yet to follow through with that promise, it’s got us looking back at Yasiin Bey’s vast, shadowy catalog. From his very first guest verse to legendary Kanye records, these are the 20 best Mos Def guest verses.
20. Mary J. Blige – Beautiful (Blackstar Remix) [Prod. by Hi-Tek] (1999)
In late ’98, Mos Def and Talib Kweli touched down with Blackstar a year after Mos made his solo debut on Rawkus with “Universal Magnetic.” The album was met with wide praise, and in ’99 Mary J. Blige enlisted the duo for a remix. Here Mos is more poetic than usual as he addresses a love interest, and though he tries to transmute his words to colors, those modes of expression aren’t enough to communicate how he feels.
19. Ronny Jordan – A Brighter Day (DJ Spinna Remix) 
From Ronny Jordan to Robert Glasper and K’naan, Mos has always had an affinity for blending hip-hop with jazz and R&B. Here he drops two verses for the “urban jazz” artist Ronny Jordan, and that second verse is some of the most effortless multisyllabic rhyming I’ve ever heard.
18. 9th Wonder – Brooklyn In My Mind (2006)
Speaking of Mos’ inaccessibility – “They don’t know the language I shout in the anthem / The beat translated made the world understand son.” From row houses to ebony man, this verse has traces of language as armor, keeping outsiders away and insulating those Mos is trying to reach.
17. Massive Attack – I Against I (2002)
The most unlikely collaboration on this list goes to Massive Attack, the trip-hop outfit who brought Mos on for this Blade II soundtrack highlight back in ’02. Yasiin might have made his way around many a boom bap beat in the ’90s, but we’ve rarely heard him over booming drums like these.
16. Diverse – Wylin’ Out (Prod. by Prefuse 73) 
Diverse’s One A.M. was one of those celebrated albums during the explosion of indie rap in the early-00s, but this cut was released in 2002, a year before One A.M. hit shelves. The names surrounding this track – Prefuse 73 did the original track while RJD2 did the remix – might bring you back to the days of The Lesson, but Mos is going for broke on this feature.
15. Talib Kweli – Get By (Remix) [Prod. by Kanye West] (2004)
In 2009 Mos Def challenged Hov, Wayne, and others to a live rap battle. Naturally nobody bit, but perhaps Mos was feeling the sting from five years prior, when Jay barely edged him out on the “Get By” remix. Nonetheless, Mos ends his verse with a sequence that’s remained imprinted on my mind since the day I heard it: “From my soul to the mic to the essence / So in my absence you feel my presence – exactly / I make contact, for short I MC / Me and mine we don’t just get by, we get free.”
14. Bush Babees – S.O.S. (Prod. by Mr. Man) 
Mos Def got his start in ’94 with a group called Urban Thermo Dynamics alongside his younger brother DCQ and sister Ces, but it wasn’t until ’96 that he broke out on his own with three features on the sophomore Bush Babees album, Gravity. Mos sang a lot in the ’90s and did the chorus for the album single “Love Song,” but on “S.O.S.” he announced his arrival in swashbuckling fashion: “I swing with fat cats that smack tracks over fat raps.”
13. Talib Kweli – Just Begun (Prod. by Hi-Tek) 
Back when I would actually listen to J. Cole, this song was a moment, as powerful a posse cut as we can expect nowadays. Jay Elect was still all the hype, but I’d always recite, “Hold your applause until the ceremony end” when Mos started spitting. It’s an apt line not just for the song, but Mos’ career as a whole. He’s special because his style is both intricate and soulful; rarely do you get such a complex lyricist who spits with dulcet warmth.
12. The Creators – Another World (2000)
Blackstar fans might not know about this gem, brought to you by UK group The Creators at the turn of the millennium. It was the second collab between Talib, Mos, and the duo after “The Hard Margin” in ’99, but Mos is practically flawless on both verses here – “Whether you Indian, Dominican, Jamaican or Bolivian / No matter what district, quarter, or part of town you livin’ in, I recommend you listen in.”
11. Mau Maus – Blak Iz Blak (Prod. by Amen-Ra) 
This is a gem. Not only did Mos Def have an acting part in Spike Lee’s Bamboozled, but he also has a slick little intro on this soundtrack cut (which, by the way, happens to find Canibus casually blacking out, too). First he said he hears the world in all-black surround sound and then he said, “My loud sound pound down, make the earth crush ya and bow down.” My loud sound pound down….
10. Tony Touch – What’s That? (Prod. by Maseo) 
We all know Mos Def is the original Pretty Flacko, but come to think of it…how did he get that moniker in the first place? It might have started in 2000 when he murdered this Maseo-produced Tony Toca cut – in Spanish.
9. Kanye West – Lord, Lord, Lord (2010)
This became my favorite G.O.O.D. Friday track (“Christian Dior Denim Flow” aside) solely because Mos Def set it off over a classic sample. He works well on tracks with Kanye because they contrast each other; Mos is this wise, scholarly, almost esoteric figure, while Kanye is the swaggering, unrefined yet charming bastard.
8. Mystic – Here We Are (2003) [Prod. by Kanye West]
Kanye was still using those god damn “Xxplosive” drums back in ’03, but Mos Def makes up for Kanye’s percussive shortcomings with one of his more straightforward verses: “Whether they slang cain, gang bang, or go to work on the A Train / the basic rules they ain’t change.”
7. Common – The Corner (Remix) 
You have to be pretty fucking good to best Scarface over a Kanye beat, but Mos paints a vivid picture of the corner, swarming with whispering teenagers and straight strangers.
6. Kanye West – Two Words (2003)
When College Dropout dropped in ’04, I would always listen closely to Mos’ verse on “Two Words” to make sure he was adhering to the unspoken rule he’d set – phrasing the entire verse two words at a time. (He doesn’t mess it up until the last two bars.) It’s a defining feature on a classic song, but even though Kanye’s verse might be a bit more iconic, let’s not forget that time Mos and ‘Ye battled in London:
5. Little Brother – Let It Go (Prod. by 9th Wonder) 
A year after The Minstrel Show, tensions were building within Little Brother, and by ’07 9th Wonder would officially leave the group. But in January ’06 they released Separate But Equal, one of the best Gangsta Grillz tapes Drama ever put together, and it included this excellent cut with Mighty Mos.
4. Reflection Eternal – Fortified Live (1997)
The debut single by Talib Kweli and Hi-Tek was the dustiest rap song they ever made together, U-Roy piano loop and all. Mos’ verse only adds to the basement feel of the track as he throws parties on the mothership to insure the “interplanetary illuminati move ya body.”
3. De La Soul – Stakes Is High (Remix) [Prod. by Jay Dee] (1996)
We didn’t get enough Mos Def over Dilla while the Detroit legend was still alive, but we did get this classic remix. Here he does maximal damage with minimal space, sounding like the most comfortable MC on the track and finding, as he often does, a pocket of his own on the beat.
2. Ski Beatz – Prowler 2 (2010)
Ski Beatz and Mos had a special chemistry during the DD172 days (if “Taxi” isn’t proof enough, check some of the bonus tracks below), and even though this verse was cut from the final version of the 24 Hour Karate School album, it’s still pure murder. “Pick and roll, give and go, no ordinary miracle / Freedom fighters spiritual, eagle eye aerials.”
1. DJ Honda – Travellin’ Man (1998)
One day, DJ Honda will get his props as an incredible beatmaker. Take “Travellin Man,” perhaps the single greatest song Mos Def has ever made. Images of the towers in the video are enough to pull your heartstrings, but the song resonates especially deeply for a native New Yorker like myself, who always sees travel as tethered to the rotten apple. It might even, again, apply to the Brooklyn MC’s career – he’s “left” rap in recent years, but every time he comes back it’s like a homecoming celebration. “I’m leaving…but God willing I’ll be back home / To drop these heavy ass bags up off my backbone.”