Sunday night saw Hip-Hop heavyweight Yasiin Bey (formerly known as Mos Def) return to the English capital for a special performance to celebrate the tenth anniversary of his fourth studio album; ‘The Ecstatic’. Widely seen as a return to form for the Brooklyn rapper, ‘The Ecstatic’ was branded as a masterpiece of ‘conscious and alternative hip-hop’, with its heady mix of middle-eastern and Turkish samples and powerful lyrics referencing the political malaise of the decade in which it was written. Ten years later and the messages in the album are more relevant than ever before; the references to the War on Terror and the power structures behind it take on new meaning in the context of the Syrian civil war, the emergent Islamophobic rhetoric in Britain and the US and the political foundations on which they stand.
Yasiin’s entry to stage is slow and steady, he immediately crouches down and begins to tag the deck-stand with spray-paint. The tag isn’t legible, but he later tells us that it says “oyster”, because apparently, he loves oysters. Good to know. Artwork finished, he then takes the time to scatter handfuls of petals across the stage before bounding into ‘Auditorium’ with its melancholic middle-eastern inspired riff and powerfully pensive lyrics.
Stopping between songs, Yasiin addresses the crowd with segments of hushed poetry, the meaning behind the verses is reinforced when he raps the same lines in the following songs. The stage design leaves a lot to be desired – static blue lights and drab backdrop – its redeeming quality is that it does complement the melancholy of some of Bey’s subject matter, and contrasts against the vibrancy of the performance.
Though branded a celebration of ‘The Ecstatic’, this concert isn’t just a straight play-through of the album. Bey’s other offerings seem to garner mixed response from the crowd; an eagerly anticipated rendition of his hit single ‘Ms Fat Booty’ is a definite crowd-pleaser, even with a distinctly different backing track as the foundation for Yasiin’s glued-to-the-beat flows. On the other hand, a deliciously atmospheric cover of El Michels Affair’s ‘C.R.E.A.M’ seems to play through without recognition from the all-too-talkative crowd. Maybe don’t go to the gig just to hear that-one-song?
The atmosphere continues to yo-yo between quiet, emotionally charged recitals of spoken word poems and electric energy; on more than one occasion we see Yasiin spin round at quite an impressive speed (I wasn’t sure whether to make a Ya-spin joke or a Bey-blade joke here, so I went with neither). The energy isn’t built up in vain, however, as Yasiin delves into a fantastic reworking of ‘Rock N Roll’ with an electronic/house backing. He calls this beat a “local rhythm” in reference to London’s rich musical culture. The song’s message, about white appropriation of black music, takes on new meaning when juxtaposed against a euro-centric house rhythm – a genre which many of us may mistakenly attribute primarily to white or European culture when in fact, like Rock’n’Roll, it has its roots in black culture.
Yasiin Bey is a man of many talents, and his technical prowess is truly on show at this performance. Few are able to deliver such a thought-provoking and politically-charged performance in such a fun and captivating way. With his effortless style, razor sharp flows, and even his various forays into acting and comedy, it’s easy to see Yasiin Bey as a precursor to today’s Childish Gambino – while Donald Glover certainly shows no signs of stopping, we can only hope that Yasiin Bey carries on impressing us, hopefully even making some new music. After all, given the dire political climate we find ourselves in, any artist who can simultaneously commentate and entertain is worth keeping around.
Yasiin Bey plays the o2 Ritz Manchester on the 16th April and the o2 Academy Bristol on the 17th.