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Yasiin Bey, 43, took the past two weeks of his life to seize a privilege most MCs, even of his ilk, don't get the opportunity to capitalize on: the moment to bow out gracefully. On the heels of a permanent ban from South Africa over a faulty passport, Bey's leaving the U.S. and retiring from the entertainment industry for good. After a show at the Apollo in his native New York City, he did a three-night run in the Kennedy Center in D.C.: a historic building full of high ceilings, grand chandeliers, and even grander ticket prices. There was even the chance to pose next to a wooden figure of JFK as you wait for the rap show to open. No one knew the specific setlists or guests for any night in advance of any of the shows; the aura of surprise seemed edgier than intended. (What if I paid to hear the one album I despise? What if I miss someone showing up?)
Given Bey's prestige, spanning over two decades of music and acting, the setting makes perfect sense; the Concert Hall had the perfect aura of courthouse meets church house, with the opera-style seating resembling pews on a Sunday for all the heads to bear witness to history. From church fits to streetwear, the crowd was older, melanated, and dressed to slay across the board. (In my casual observations, I saw a boy no older than seven with a trenchcoat that made me want to set fire to my wardrobe.) Though the final two hours of Bey's career intrigued many a hue of hip-hop head, the D.C. in this hall on January 2 reminded me of the Chocolate City we clutched so close in my childhood. “Untitled (1960)” by Basquiat sat idle on the projection above. Balloons littered the stage – which Bey went on to call “trapped happiness” - followed by a dumping of rose petals.
Bey dumped plenty more petals on the ground upon his 8:55 p.m. arrival, spilling an overwhelming gratitude before even saying a word. Final game fit: Red flannel with a long gray tee underneath, black shorts and boots, a handkerchief to dab the sweat from his head, and a Red Shure Super 55 as his classic weapon of choice. The following 110 minutes were an exhibition in the thundering minimalism only achievable by an MC of Bey's caliber: no frills, next-to-no hyping from the DJ, and no intermissions. The only visual cue was the red-inked Bey signature logo overdubbed on a black-and-white loop of The Way of All Flesh: the 1997 documentary from Adam Curtis on the importance of Henrietta Lacks cells. Quite the deliberate background for a man so prolific in his musings from the project window, never shaken enough to cast out the slaughter signed in his name. But rest assured Bey was quite clear in his intentions of learning while celebrating with the over 2,000 attendees who paid their American dollars to hear the wail of a legend one last time.
On the final eve of Black Dante, legendary moments were all over the agenda. As the masses remained seated after their first ovation, Bey ran through a balanced blend of older joints and teasers of newer material. I pondered how long it'd last, the inherent insincerity of the polite air running through this theater. Damn the Kennedy mural, this hip-hop shit was all in the energy waiting to erupt in waiving hands and raising fists. From the moment Bey dropped “Auditorium” and we saw Slick Rick touch stage – complete with eye-patch, swollen arms poking out the basketball jersey, with more chains than we'd dare count – the entire house roared with glee as the Madlib blared on. Rick didn't say much more than his verse and everyone was standing in awe, even Yasiin. He went on to speak of Rick coming from an era when rappers were still superheroes, and rapping wasn't a viable career path; one of several displays of humbling oneself in the chance to stand by an idol, considering the trend of many of our rap idols constantly disappointing us ever so much.
The whole crowd stood strong upon the arrival of Talib Kweli: the very drop of “Astronomy (8th Light)” incited a mini-Black Star reunion for every oldhead in the building to scream and remain standing. Certainly, they did “Definition” and “RE: Definition” back-to-back. Of course they hit “History,” only to follow it with “Just to Get By” as Talib conjured the Holy Ghost via the loose notes of Nina Simone, with Yasiin crooning over the flow to share in the spirit. They called each other brothers, both relishing the products of their life's work while insisting on thanking each other more than themselves. There was nothing more electrifying than hearing this corner of the world shouting “1-2-3! Mos Def and Talib Kweli-i-i!” to the sky like we're two decades ago and everything wasn't broken.
After a rendition of “Life in Marvelous Times,” Bey took to the drums as Robert Glasper took to the keys, his friends on violin and bass. The crowd returned to their seats and vibed to the slower-tempo rendition of “The Boogie Man Song” before the good laugh of watching Bey drum and sing “Poison” by Bell Biv Devoe, Glasper calling it an “old jazz standard” and pointing to the audience to hit the notes they definitely know. (Chocolate City, I must remind you!) During his final medley, we heard Bey praying to Allah over Glasper's keys; enough to convince one to pray often, if Glasper can underscore these conversations with whichever God one subscribes.
The final medley - “Love / Umi Says / Travellin' Man” - was a perfect frame for a Yasiin Bey that was overjoyed and overwhelmed all night. We witnessed a man neither on his dying legs nor past his prime; no, we saw a giant looking us in the eye as he's always promised to do. He spent the night deflecting all audience requests with a deadpan sincerity, he apologized to the rose petals for stepping on them, and he was always half-dancing; gracefully pacing and kicking balloons, doing full body spins to instrumentals for 15 seconds at a time, shuffling and body rocking to the point where you'd think he was about to hit a windmill at any given moment. This final medley cemented the finality in everything; Bey gave us fragments from each, extending his wails before drying his tears to several ovations. The convictions in his voice hit him in real-time; not of contempt, but contention with the incoming shift in his circumstances. I wondered who needed to hear it more, those cries to go.
He unplugged his mic, stomped on stage, and stepped down onto the floor for a victory lap around the orchestra level, Zulu Nation security guards flanked at all sides. He shouted out Prince, and Ali, and sang “Champion Requiem” before blowing kisses to the audience and exiting the stage for the last time. I felt compelled to grab whatever I could before departing: I settled on two balloons that left the stage and orbited the crowd, and I returned with a friend to grab as many rose petals as we could before the ushers insisted on our departure. It didn't feel real, given the industry standard of pump-faking a retirement to boost one's profile before a reinvention of some sort. With the recent release of Local Time under the Dec 99th moniker (with Ferrari Sheppard) and two more albums on the way, perhaps I'm praying for a pump-fake from the selfishness of needing a Yasiin for the road ahead. Why depart from us now? Who can step up and shine that light? Wherever they are, we need them; as of tonight, the days of Black Dante are now long gone. On the second day of a year set for turbulence, a piece of history stepped into those pews to be with his people before departing once more into the darkness, the silence that grants him peace.
Fear Not of Man
No Time to Pretend
Auditorium (feat. Slick Rick)
Black Star - Astronomy (8th Light)
Black Star - Definition
Black Star - RE: Definition
History (feat. Talib Kweli)
Talib Kweli – Just to Get By
Life in Marvelous Times
Love (with Robert Glasper)
The Boogie Man Song (with Robert Glasper)
Poison (Bell Biv Devoe cover) [with Robert Glasper]
Love / Umi Says / Travellin' Man (with Robert Glasper)
Michael Penn II (aka CRASHprez) is a rapper and a former VMP staff writer. He's known for his Twitter fingers.