Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def) ranks as high in the boom bap congress’ delegates of lyrical adroits as Gil Scott-Heron, Boogiedown Productions, and Lakim Shabazz. Like those artists, Bey idealizes hip-hop as a creative, regenerative, democracy and viewed hip-hop’s music as rhythmic rumination on black folks imaginative potential. Those guys quickly took a left turn when it came to conventional rap tradition. Heron’s poetic deemed him more a trailblazer than a traditionalist, beating a solo djembe against the tyranny of the American state, but Bey’s Brooklyn groove with his decidedly antinomian perspective shrouded him with love from the locals and the stars alike. His ball’s out punk rock enchantments divided critics but it’s cool, most political types are polarizing. Plus, Bey never lost touch with the black folk that represented his core voting bloc.
Bey’s recent retirement announcement hint at the social ghosts haunting his verses, feelings of injustice, of displacement, and the exhaustion of battling against those particular conditions that harm oppressed people globally. Back when he was Mos Def, fresh off the buzz for the magic that was Black Star (with his running-mate Talib Kweli), Mos started the campaign with “Fear Not a Man” on that classic cut, Black on Both Sides, by reminding us that this hip-hop thing ain’t about nothin’ else but “what’s happening with us…So the next time you ask yourself where hip-hop is goin. Ask yourself, where am I goin? How am I doin.” That was Mos Def, then. That’s Bey now. Hip-hop isn’t just culture to him; it’s black youth’s collective psychology, how we behave even when we’re not paying attention. Hip-hop couldn’t be restrained to just expression, as expression is pulled out from somewhere in us. So hip-hop comes from somewhere in us. And the manifestations of those expressions can’t be contained. Consequently, rap couldn’t just be a couple 16 over syncopated instrumentals; or even live renditions at that. Bey heard more in us; thought more of us. Hip-hop could harness rock n roll. Why not? Both stem from the same seemingly endless creative repository. If the record “Rock n Roll” on Bey’s inaugural LP was any foreshadow, The New Danger, was his initiation into the black mosh pit.
The pit isn’t for everybody. And such a decisive departure from traditional boom bap had fans of Black on Both Sides pretty sore. Same fans probably couldn’t get hip to the urgency in “Umi Says” on the first record or the kinesis of “The Panties” because Bey was hittin’ notes instead of spittin’ bars. While some of the tracks on The New Danger did lack thematic subtlety (The Easy Spell was a hard listen despite some impressive guitar riffs from Bad Brains,’ Dr. Know), Bey was rightfully stubborn to continue to produce music that didn’t shout rap but fit congruently in black music’s transgressive lineage. Bey fought back against the very concept of being a “rap artist,” preferring a rock funkadelic that held up the heaviness of his rhymes. Rock is not an experiment, just as hip-hop isn’t something you put on and take off, but a reality whether realized or not.
It’s easy to overlook the two decades Bey spent balancing hip-hop democracy, using his art to disrupt the daily going’s-on in the music industry (remember when homie went guerrilla in 2006 performing “Katrina Clap” outside the VMAs?), and his personal nomadic proclivities but the exhaustion in Bey’s voice on his announcement clip is unmistakable. The brotha is really sick of the business. Although rap is often considered one of those professions one never really retires from, Bey has proven to be an artist you can take at his word. Even if Bey stops releasing music, he is still roaming the earth inhabiting a body that was used for the advancement of hip-hop; therefore the advancement of us. I have no doubt that he will continue this work of bettering without the glitzy gaze of mainstream and alternative media alike. The hip-hopper will keep hip-hopping, but, for the time being, please no photos.