Yasiin Bey (AKA Mos Def)
with Toki Wright and This Debris
Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis
Monday, October 10, 2012
Yasiin Bey returned to the Guthrie for his second headlining gig since playing in 2010, this time with Toki Wright and his full band as the sole opener. It was an odd but strangely fitting place to see a hip-hop show, especially one like this that transcended what that term even means.
Toki Wright played the opening slot, backed by his band This Debris, who brought a whole different sort of energy than beats would have. Never one to be contained by the space he's performing in, Toki immediately required everyone to stand up from their seats. The Guthrie is a nice and intimate space to see a show, with the feel of a small-scale arena where you actually feel close and connected to the performer. But Toki wanted more than that; he wanted a party.
People stood and danced through the entirety of his set, though still somewhat constrained by their seating. This Debris come off as a hybrid band even though instrumentation is pretty standard funk set-up, thanks to Toki's broad-minded approach to music which has lately thrown house, dub, reggae, soul and even moments of gospel into his hip-hop gumbo. Toki rapped and sang a variety of tracks and engaged the audience incredibly well, using lots of call and response, as well as conducting his team to different stages of energy. Drummer Kevin Washington was almost as much a star of the set, with a frenetic drum style and captivating singing voice that were amazing to see. He ended on an incredible version of "Devil's Advocate" that began as harmonizing soul vocals that slowly became the beat of the song, which then picked up pace before switching styles entirely, creating a powerful finale for what was just the first act of the night.
While Toki's strength was the collective power of his rapping and the band's muscle, once Yasiin stepped on stage it was clear he was doing just the opposite. With two turntablists behind him spinning tracks, the show was focused on the presence of the man formerly known as Mos Def, who proved himself as magnanimous a dancer as he is a vocalist. It's fitting he performed on a stage usually reserved for plays, as his show placed as much on his physicality as his rapping. Yasiin is an impossibly talented vocalist beyond simply his ability with rhymes: His flow often incorporates melodic elements, but he sang with an almost operatic dexterity made this more expansive than a rap performance. "Life In Marvelous Times" was definitely a big hit and played incredibly well in this setting.
He focused on later material, and stretched songs in ways that brought out both the lyrics and the harmonies at different points. Some songs like the Dilla-produced "Sunshine Screwface" got extended to showcase all elements of the track individually; he'd let the beat ride for a minute while dancing along to it, then cut the track and do an a capella before dropping the beat again and repeating the verse with the track intact. It turned songs into an audience appreciation of the beats, the rhymes, the vocalization and the physical movements as individual pieces before bringing them all together to create a final piece of art.
The speaker system was a tad meager for a hip-hop show (though it didn't stop anyone from dancing), and only new tracks which featured contemporary, bass-heavy beats really showed through. This was somewhat an advantage, as it allowed Yasiin to truly be center stage, bringing forth his vocal talent in a number of ways. Be it cementing the power of his lyrics through soft-spoken takes, serenading the audience with strong hooks, or belting "BEY! BEY! BEY!" at the top of his lungs a la Waka Flocka, he had every corner covered.
He was a joy to watch, as he sashayed across the stage clutching his vintage microphone in his fist, giving all to each track with true showmanship. As the classic "Umi Says" closed the set, he felt inspired to lift the the rope which blocked the audience from the stage, and a circle of fans immediately swarmed him during the song as security rushed forward. He finished out the track with a bevy of concertgoers surrounding him in a nice moment of unrehearsed chaos, which he immediately apologized for after ushers shooed everyone away ("I'm sorry, I had an inspired moment -- nobody got hurt"). It was a triumphant end to a fantastic set from one of hip-hop's true gems.
Critic's Bias: I thought that maybe Yasiin's acting career might have taken away from his abilities as a rap musician. I now see they've helped improve them.
The Crowd: Well-dressed, range of ages and races, pretty lively for an event with assigned seats.
Random Notebook Dump:
I guess Chris Riemenschneider doesn't listen to as much 2 Chainz as I do, but the middle of the set was not so much "quizzically peculiar" new tracks exactly
: Much of Yasiin's latest work are takes on contemporary hits, like Watch the Throne's "Niggas In Paris" (redone as "Niggas in Poorest"), done as both meta-commentary and responses to modern mixtape culture. His lyrics over 2 Chainz' "Spend It" are an ironic take on the themes of the original track ("I'm riding round and I'm ignant / I'm always horny though / That's me on the Maury show" -- clearly not meant to be taken literally) while still appreciating the original beat.
Overheard In The Crowd: "I felt his sweat! I put the paws on him!" "You put the paws on him?" "I put the paws on him!"
All The Way Turnt Up
Juicy Acapella (Notorious B.I.G.)
Ain't No Stopping Us Now (McFadden & Whitehead)
Life In Marvelous Times
Grove St. Party (Waka Flocka Flame remix)
Spend It (2 Chainz remix)