Quality art is timeless, but careers are finite. Either the public decides an artist is done, or he makes that decision for himself. For Yasiin Bey, the decision to close his loop as an entertainer was all his own. Considering his history, that should come as no surprise.
Bey — the artist formerly known as Mos Def — has spent over two decades juggling his many talents, oscillating between music and acting, his evolution marked by several defining turns. There was 1998’s “Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star,” one of the most lauded rap albums of its time, notable for its potent social and political lyrics. There was his sublime solo debut, “Black on Both Sides,” released the following year and establishing him as a bona fide star. There was the 2005 Golden Globe-nominated performance in HBO’s “Something the Lord Made.” There’s the constant activism, the name change and now what appears to be the end of this phase of his life.
After being arrested in South Africa (where he had lived since 2013) early last year for attempting to leave the country using an invalid passport, the 43-year-old announced his retirement from the music industry. And after finally being permitted to leave South Africa just before Thanksgiving, he announced farewell shows at the Apollo Theater (where he performed in late December) and a trio of shows at the Kennedy Center, the last of which was Monday night.
That final performance was a showcase of his catalogue’s depth, his versatility as a performer and the weight of his influence. If this was, in fact, the last time Bey performed, it was a proper send-off and confirmed that his impact will live on through his art and those it inspired.
Bey’s willingness to spread his talents across multiple disciplines has overshadowed his ingenuity as a rapper. Many forget that he’s one of the best to do it. After performing “Auditorium” with golden-era icon Slick Rick, Bey told a brief story about how hip-hop was one of his first loves, naming the jewelry-laden legend as one of his heroes. From there, he glided from “Hip Hop” to “Mathematics,” two highlights from “Black on Both Sides” that flexed his gifts in terms of flow, presence and lyricism.
Rapper Pharoahe Monch, a collaborator who performed alongside Bey at Sunday’s show, refers to him as the rare “five-tool artist,” noting that his ability as a lyricist should never be downplayed.
“When breaking down lyricism and MCing, he has to be part of the conversation,” Monch, who’s known Bey and Talib Kweli since the pair were performing at Brooklyn’s Nkiru Books in the 1990s, explained in a phone interview last week. “He’s an actor, so that comes into play even in lyricism. A line from another MC might not cut through the way it does when he executes the same type of line.”
That performative quality radiates through Bey. He can be a comedian, as he was when he jokingly thanked the crowd for their “uninvited suggestions” when asking his DJ what he should perform next. The beats in his speech were rhythmic, and there was always a grace to his movements. He began the show by sauntering across the stage, spreading rose petals all the while before slinking into a jazzed-up version of the Fela Kuti-sampling “Fear Not of Man.” He danced freely throughout the evening, be it skipping across the aforementioned bed of rose petals or breaking out into an impromptu heel-toe session. And when the energy mounted, Bey engineered another well-received Black Star reunion, bringing out Kweli (who also joined him on New Year’s Day).
Bey and Kweli’s lone album as Black Star stood out against the grandiosity of late-’90s hip-hop for its pro-black themes and insight. In 1998 it was clumsily branded as “conscious rap”; now it’s simply classic hip-hop.
Their collaborative energy was as strong as ever on Monday, and the songs retained their dynamic qualities, from the crawling bass of “Astronomy (8th Light)” to the infamous transition between the Boogie Down Productions-referencing “Definition” and “RE: DEFinition.” At one point Bey feigned surprise and innocence while Kweli sang the chorus to YG’s “FDT (F--- Donald Trump).”
At another, Bey assembled a three-piece band consisting of a bassist, pianist Robert Glasper and himself on drums. Providing his own vocals, he led a brief jazz interlude which included a minimalist rendition of Bell Biv DeVoe’s New Jack Swing staple, “Poison.” Bey’s knack for welding his influences into something distinctly his own has long impressed Pharoahe Monch.
“You can tell his vision always encompassed the whole gamut, from performance, to presence, to the musicality of the different art forms,” he says. Ferrari Sheppard, a recent Bey collaborator who produced their recent project together, “Dec. 99th,” credits that to what he calls one of the best musical ears he’s ever come across.
“He could be on the phone talking about something that’s really serious and hear — from a different room — whether a bass line is off,” Sheppard said in an interview last week. “Or tell you to [adjust] that snare while he’s cursing you out on the phone.”
As a creator, it’s hard to deny that Bey was slightly ahead of his time. His successors have turned to him as a model for creative dexterity. Harlem rapper A$AP Rocky, who appeared in last year’s indie film “Dope” and fully embraces his own artiste and curator ambitions, featured Bey on his 2015 album. Donald Glover may not be a direct disciple, but his path to success — which now includes the Golden Globe-nominated series, “Atlanta,” in addition to his musical output — was illuminated by Bey’s multifaceted brilliance.
In the interview last week, Pharoahe Monch spoke to Bey’s creative restlessness and ambition. “It seems as though he may feel like wherever the vibes may take the vessel is the way that you go — with no remorse,” he suggested.
But if it wasn’t quite remorse, one could sense some wistfulness on Monday. During an almost-melancholy performance of “Umi Says,” Bey was moved to tears. It finally sunk in: the night, and this chapter of his career, was over.
Soon after, he made his way around the auditorium, personally thanking fans for sharing the moment with him. Following his victory lap, Bey returned to the stage. Should he choose to do so in the future, he’ll be met with the same resounding applause.