Yasiin Bey (formally known as Mos Def) walked onto the stage late Saturday night and spread out white and red rose petals from a bag. Instantly he brought a stage presence that was, now as ever, intensely charismatic — a cosy, confident, centred presence with an easy smile. Not since A Tribe Called Quest and Q-Tip has hip-hop seen an MC as intelligent, as lyrically proficient, and as baby-butt smooth as Mos Def.
When he emerged in the late 90s as half of Black Star with Talib Kweli, then on to his debut solo album, Black on Both Sides, his lyrical acuity and easy flow looked like the future for conscious hip-hop. Since then he has meandered between acting and political activism, and was recently deported from South Africa following immigration violations.
Rolling off the back of disappointing reviews for his latest work December 99th, Bey had something to prove on his tour of the UK and Europe, especially after announcing his retirement late last year.
Yet this was a performance that, for me, cemented his position as one of the most inherently musical rappers ever, a flexible vocalist gifted in complex verse but also fluent in soul serenade, rock shouting, reggae toasting and more. His flow is loose and lithe on jazzy, trippy old numbers such as “Mathematics” and “New World Water”, and on “Auditorium” and “Casa Bey” from his excellent last album, 2009’s The Ecstatic, and half an hour into the set he is firmly in his comfort zone and coasting.
On “The Boogie Man Song,” he sang with meditative jazz sensibility, and on “The Panties,” with seductive soul cool. Occasionally, he would break out in a joyous side-to-side shuffle, throwing rose petals into the crowd. With the more familiar parts of his catalogue, the crowd received him rapturously. Sometimes he’d just take a quick break to soak in the moment.
It wasn’t all a bed of roses however, with Mos Def's singing on tracks like "Climb" and "Umi Says" at times a bit hard to stomach. And then there's the matter of his sporadic introductory speeches, which occasionally sound like the pseudo-prophetic ramblings of a guy who might benefit from one less hit from the bong. But this, honestly, is nit-picking. Because when the beat drops and Def starts spitting his meticulously- crafted lyrics, embodying everything from irresistible pop-rap ("Ms. Fatbooty") to a fierce critique of white culture's appropriation of black music and culture that moves steadily from laid-back funk to hopped-up pop-punk ("Rock 'n' Roll"), he becomes the man that does it all-- addressing serious socio-political issues while remaining positive and affirmative from start to finish. Inspiring, no?
Review: Daniel Sharp