Mystery is a part of Yasiin Bey’s charm. Since releasing his last album, The Ecstatic, in 2009, the Brooklyn MC (formerly known as Mos Def) has become something of a full-time travellin’ man, surfacing in England one month and Ethiopia the next on a political, spiritual and occasionally musical journey.
Like his buddy Dave Chappelle in the mid ’00s, Yasiin found an adopted home in South Africa, where he was detained for most of 2016 after running into immigration trouble (which has since been sorted out). While on lockdown, he decided to record an album with his right-hand man, journalist and casual producer Ferrari Sheppard, collectively known as Dec. 99th (the two also launched the digital platform, A Country Called Earth, together in 2014).
December 99th was the name, and December 9 was the arrival date. For reasons unknown—but not necessarily surprising—the album went missing without so much as an explanation from Bey or Sheppard (which might have actually been a good thing considering the recent pile-up of albums from J. Cole, Ab-Soul, Kid Cudi and Gucci Mane).
Until yesterday (December 21), when December 99th appeared on TIDAL (the only place you can legally stream it) out of the blue. 10 songs, one producer, zero features.
December 99th was thought to be Yasiin Bey’s final album but now appears to be the first of three farewell projects—preceding Negus In Natural Person and As Promised, his long-awaited collaboration with Mannie Fresh—before he retires for good next year. In which case, consider this the beginning of the end of Yasiin Bey, Mighty Mos Def, the original Pretty Flacko—one of the greatest, if not enigmatic MCs of all time.
Three Standout Songs:
Blade In the Pocket
If you listened to any of the previously released singles—“N.A.W.,” “Local Time,” “Tall Sleeves” and “Seaside Panic Room”—I’m afraid to say you’ve already heard most of the best moments this album has to offer. I’ll be honest, I struggled to find three new songs I loved off this thing, but in the context of the album, “Blade In the Pocket” is still one of the better tracks.
Sheppard’s production is dark, eery and ever-so-slightly chopped and screwed as if Mobb Deep relocated to Houston. It’s impressive for a guy more famous for his tweets than his beats. Yasiin Bey, on the other hand, fails to send chills down your spine, even with a blade in his pocket. He sounds more like a drunk stumbling through the late-night shadows, waving a knife in the air and talking about how “only God can stop it.” What is “it,” you ask? Good question.
Shadow In the Dark
Two things about this album: Ferrari is a better producer than he led on, and Yasiin Bey is barely interested in bars. On “Shadow In the Dark” (which, again, isn’t a particularly great song on its own, but in the context of the album etc.), Sheppard’s lighter, groovier production meets Bey’s free spirited singing and spoken word stream-of-consciousness. “It’s like a shadow in the daaark / You may not see it but you feel it theeere,” he sings in his distinctly slurred delivery, the notes getting higher towards the end of each line. Another thing about this album: the good moments don’t last, and Bey’s hook soon becomes sloppier and less poetic.
“Heri” is the 10th and final song on the album, which was originally nine tracks long. I’m not mad, though, because this might be the best of the bunch. I should point out “Heri” is also an instrumental track, which is less of a slight towards Yasiin Bey and more of a compliment to Ferrari Sheppard’s surprisingly impressive production chops. Clocking in at 5:06—by far the longest cut on the album—“Heri” is a gorgeous bouquet of keys, claps, and hi-hats that end an otherwise disappointing album on a high note.
To say we’ve been spoilt for new music this month would be an understatement, but when I heard Yasiin Bey was releasing an album in December, I had it as my sleeper pick. After a few listens, it just sent me to sleep.
December 99th is certainly more experimental than most of Bey’s previous music. This isn’t a rappin’ ass rap album—in fact, Mos spends more time stretching his vocal range than purely spitting. But more often than not, that sense of adventure leads him off the edge of the cliff. His delivery can be distracted, his songwriting can be sloppy and his rhymes (when he feels like rhyming) can be aimless and overly abstract. Also, there is no logical explanation as to why “Special Dedication” is basically "IT GOES" with a different beat.
In an interview with Ferrari Sheppard last year, Bey spoke with insight and intensity about the negative forces that are destroying the world. “Everything from Tamir Rice to the Paris shootings, to what’s happening to the students in University of Missouri, to what’s happening in Wits [University] to what I been experiencing in the negative in South Africa, is all connected, it’s all the same thing,” he said. “It’s just these forces, right, that are looking to just turn the world into a brutal place and to turn people into machines.”
Unfortunately, that urgency is missing on December 99th. Ferrari Sheppard’s production, despite being the best thing about this album, cruises along at a steady 99 BPM. Bey touches on needs versus wants on “N.A.W.” and how “the time is now” on “Local Time,” but not once do you feel inspired to get up out your seat and march in the streets. A Tribe Called Quest returned after 18 years to protest with us; Yasiin Bey returned after seven to perplex us.
I really hope Yasiin Bey is planning to release Negus In Natural Person and As Promised (which would be a terribly ironic title) because his career deserves a better send-off than this.
By Andy James. Follow him on Twitter.
Photo Credit: TIDAL