On Wednesday night (Dec. 21), Harlem’s historic Apollo Theater was thick with gratitude as Yasiin Bey (formerly known as Mos Def) presided over the New York crowd for a special homecoming show that followed a year mostly spent detained in South Africa after violating local immigration laws. The Brooklyn rep also released his new joint album December 99th with producer Ferrari Sheppard just hours prior. “I won’t front like I’m not nervous,” he confessed.
Bey, however, seemed far from that. After stepping onto the stage around 9:30 p.m., he appeared with his signature Red Super 55 Shure mic and the bold, eccentric energy that’s defined him for decades. From the frenetic “Basquiat Ghostwriter” to the fitting crowd favorite “Hip Hop,” Bey spent much of his time in the spotlight performing and sporadically breaking into musings on fame and life or the occasional ramble (“I’m just going to say s–t until I got s–t to say”).
Bey also brought out special guests, his close collaborators Pharoahe Monch and Slick Rick. The Ruler, clad in chains, a matching pink sneakers and hoodie with a diamond-encrusted eye patch, executed his verse seamlessly from “The Auditorium” off Bey’s brilliant 2009 offering The Ecstatic. “Oh No,” Bey’s 2000 collaboration with Monch and Nate Dogg, had hands in the air and hips bouncing until “Simon Says” ushered in a rowdy throwback turn-up. Even Bey couldn’t process what has just transpired. “That just happened!,” he screamed. “That just happened!”
Bey then shared another intimate moment with the audience. “I appreciate the entertainment [industry] and all, but I’m over it. I just want a place to be honest and real,” he said before gliding through his next few songs like “Umi Says,” “The Panties” and “Boogie Man” From his socially conscious agenda to his boundary-pushing, experimental discography, Bey has personified keeping it real in musicianship and character.
As the night nears its end, Bey introduces new material off what he says is “the best album [he’s] ever done.” He adds, “This will be my final solo project. It’s called Negus in Natural Person.” The tracks are spacious, dominated by electronic influence and genre-bending sonic spaces that may require multiple listens to comprehend. Despite the unfamiliarity, the songs are still quintessentially Yasiin Bey. (He also recently shared that a joint project with Mannie Fresh called As Promised is in the works.)
It’s a bittersweet parting as Bey announced that his pair of shows at the Apollo and a forthcoming engagement at The John F. Kennedy Center next week would be his final U.S. performances but there’s an unspoken acknowledgement that the night’s events was a moment. “You make the magic,” he tells the audience before one show-goer corrects him, ensuring that the headliner knows the truth of his impact to all in attendance: “No, you make the magic.”