For Yasiin Bey, Once Known as Mos Def, a Comeback With the Finish Line in Mind


Yasiin Bey at the Apollo Theater, in what was billed as a retirement present.

Byron Smith for The New York Times

Yasiin Bey walked onto the Apollo Theater stage on Wednesday night time and unfold out white and pink rose petals from a bag. “I won’t front like I’m not nervous,” he stated. “I’m too old for fronting. It does not go with my wardrobe.”

It was early in the present, and he was nonetheless adjusting to the mild. For most of the previous few years, Mr. Bey — the artist previously recognized as Mos Def — has been living in South Africa, and has remained principally at a take away from the music enterprise. His final full-length album was launched in 2009.

This Apollo efficiency was one thing of a comeback, however an ambivalent one. Instead, it was billed as a retirement show, the first in a collection: two right here, adopted by others together with three in Washington subsequent week.

And so this live performance was marked by competing energies: on the one aspect, exuberance and heat acclaim, and on the different, resignation and the heavy sigh that comes with the conclusion of one thing candy.

Throughout the night time, he zigged and zagged between the two. Mr. Bey is, now as ever, intensely charismatic — a cozy, assured, centered presence with a simple smile. He is one among the most inherently musical rappers ever, a versatile vocalist gifted in complicated verse but in addition fluent in soul serenade, rock shouting, reggae toasting and extra. Two many years in the past, his versatility was uncommon, and didn’t all the time have an apparent residence; these days, it’s a lot nearer to the norm.

At occasions throughout this live performance, Mr. Bey appeared elated. The rapping on “Casa Bey,” “Mathematics” and “Hip Hop” introduced fluidity to the staccato. On “The Boogie Man Song,” he sang with meditative jazz sensibility, and on “The Panties,” with seductive soul cool. Occasionally, he would escape in a joyous side-to-side shuffle. The most spectacular second was his deeply invested efficiency of “Umi Says,” a meditation on self-love. He whisper-sung superbly, as if main the room in prayer.

When he leaned into the extra acquainted elements of his catalog, the crowd acquired him rapturously, and he appeared humbled by the affection. Sometimes he’d simply take a fast break to soak in the second. “Don’t be scared of the silence,” he stated. “It don’t mean I’m unprepared.” (Notably, he didn’t carry out what’s in all probability his best-known music, the candy flirtation “Ms. Fat Booty.”)

He appeared the happiest when he was joined by visitors: Pharoahe Monch for “Oh No” and “Simon Says,” and later, Slick Rick, resplendent in outrageous diamond-encrusted chains, for “Auditorium.” These have been moments that situated Mr. Bey in a continuum, that underscored his place in hip-hop custom.

But he additionally made a show of breaking exhausting with that very same custom. “That’s part of the reason you get a job as a rock ’n’ roll star — so you can be free,” he stated. “That was a big draw for me.”

For the first 20 minutes of this present, he targeted on knottier materials, and the crowd wasn’t fairly positive whether or not to take a seat or stand. And all through the night time, Mr. Bey struck melancholy notes that someway managed to be reframed as optimistic philosophy. “Showbiz is not a place where people are often human,” he stated at one level, then added, “You can’t be everything to everybody, but you better be real to yourself.”

Late in the night time, he unveiled materials from a forthcoming album that he stated can be his final solo rap album. (He additionally launched an album earlier on Wednesday, as one half of Dec. 99th, a duo with the producer Ferrari Sheppard.) He stopped the first track halfway via to warmly admonish these in the crowd who have been filming him on their telephones. “Machines,” he referred to as them. He gave a temporary soliloquy in favor of aware engagement, then pointed his hand at his coronary heart, his eyes, his temple, every time preaching the advantage of “this machine.”

But it seems the music he was introducing was a few of his most machine-like ever: thick, digitally serrate, typically abrasive. It had virtually no swing. It appeared notably ill-suited for the tender nimbus of Mr. Bey’s voice.

But an fascinating factor occurred in these songs: Rather than stomp together with the manufacturing, he threaded by way of it nimbly. He caught to his previous patterns and melodies, and pushed again towards the rigor of the manufacturing. Even as the music was pounding and grinding, Mr. Bey was floating — it felt like a metaphor for easy methods to survive traumatic, unpredictable occasions.

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