17th April | O2 Academy
Photos: Lee Ramsey
As a genuinely enigmatic character, there are few names in hip-hop that conjure up the type of mystical aura that surrounds Mos Def and his artistic output. And, after a slightly confusing string of release announcements, retirement announcements and cancelled shows, it was unclear what lay ahead for the ‘conscious’ rapper.
What we do know is that no more new music will be made under the Mos Def moniker. Yasiin Bey (his real name) seems to have full control in that regard. Thankfully, Bey has actually chosen to give the Mos Def material one last (for now) hurrah on the ten-year anniversary of The Ecstatic – which brings us to the real beginning of this review.
Before the headline set, resident Bristol hip-hop DJ duo, Spin The Juice were keeping the refreshingly-relaxed crowd at the O2 Academy content with their well-curated mix, people showing knowing smiles and appreciative head-bobs aplenty. These smiles and nods bled smoothly into cheers and whistles as the crowd realised that the unassuming man who appeared on the side of the stage with a coat and satchel was, in fact, Mos Def.
After tagging the cloth hanging from the decks with a word I couldn’t quite make out, and doing some rather impressive birdsong, he got straight into the classics with ‘Auditorium’. In previous shows, Mos Def has been known to skim through fan-favourite material, perhaps leaving audiences a little underfed. It was instantly clear that wasn’t going to be the case with this show, with every ad-lib and skit recreated in sincere fashion. Even Slick Rick’s guest verse on the opener was left to play through the speakers uninterrupted.
Not wanting to have the show just be a run-through of old stuff, however, it wasn’t long before Def started sprinkling handfuls of rose petals over the stage. Coupled with the rich pink light matching The Ecstatic’s album cover, it felt like an earnest invitation to join him in a celebration not just of his music, but of the idea of free artistic expression as a whole.
After getting to experience incredible renditions of ‘The Embassy’, ‘Life In Marvelous Times’, ‘Twilight Speedball’, ‘Supermagic’ and ‘Casa Bey’ (a wholly satisfying scoop into the delicious ice cream tub of The Ecstatic) we were thanked for spending not just our money, but our most valuable asset too – our time. I’m sure I wasn’t alone in thinking, ‘that’s quite alright.’
Using a beautiful Milton Nascimento tune as a half-time breather after losing himself in a vigorous pirouette to the transcendent closing section of ‘Casa Bey’, he then proceeded with the less straightforward but ultimately more rewarding second half of the set. Lesser-known Dilla cuts, Wu-Tang mash-ups and Khruangbin samples provided the sonic backdrop to rhymes old and new, and his collaboration with Massive Attack, ‘I Against I’ was gratefully received.
One of the larger audience responses came when Dilla’s beat for the slum village tune ‘Fall In Love’ started pumping from the PA. Such is its universal power over hip-hop heads, that any background chatter in the venue ceased instantly, and when Mos Def started spitting ‘Ms. Fat Booty’ over it, a palpable sense of unity spread through the venue, like some sort of hidden shared history, suddenly made apparent.
My favourite moment of the set, however, was when the warm pink glow that characterised the the preceding part of the set was dropped to the black of a warehouse rave, and Mr Fingers’ legendary house tune ‘Can You Feel It’ became the backing track to the words of ‘UMI Says’, with Def’s soothing half-sung vocals becoming even more affecting accompanied by the love-drenched instrumental.
Mos Def trod a delicate and meaningful path between playing to and with people’s expectations during his set. It says a lot that when an artist waves goodbye at the end of the night, the crowd’s reaction is to forgo the usual affair of screaming applause and wave back, as they would a friend on a train platform: a mark of true appreciation.
See the video for ‘Casa Bey’ here: