Yasiin Bey is one the greats. Most notably (though not exclusively) under his old moniker Mos Def, his uniquely laid back yet ferocious delivery, his ability to weave his powerful singing voice through tracks in a way nobody was really doing at the time and his fearless politicism have him anointed with legendary status in many hip-hop circles. To this day albums like his seminal 1999 work Black On BothSides and his iconic Black Star collaboration with Talib Kweli are favourites of hip-hop fans and fellow artists alike.
His appearance tonight at Troxy should be one to remember then. With Robert Glasper and a full band including live drums, bass and piano in tow this is also a fairly unique performance for Bey, who generally opts for the hip-hop live show’s often underwhelming set-up of no more than a DJ and a backing track.
Yasiin Bey being Yasiin Bey soon enough has the room energised. With emphasis on his more jazz leaning tracks, lead by singing rather than rapping, Bey’s voice has lost none of its potency. A few fan favourites such as a collab with Slick Rick under us Mos Def moniker ‘Auditorium’, lean more towards his skills as an MC, it’s satisfyingly singalong chorus placating the crowd while the energy is turned up with huge covers of the likes of ‘Hotline Bling’ (yes really), a brilliantly energetic rendition of Bel Biv Devoe’s ‘Poison’ and perfectly delivered rendition of Madvillain’s ‘Meat Grinder’. Bey certainly seems to be enjoying himself, the covers seemingly as much for himself as they are for the crowd.
Though perhaps not what some where there for, it’s the tracks which utilise Bey’s vocals and the addition of Glasper and his band that shine the brightest tonight. One of Bey’s strongest attributes has always been his voice and his ability to utilise it in a hip-hop setting perfectly.
Here, tracks such as the lusciously layered vocals of ‘UMI Says’ (with excellent accompaniment from surprise guest Laura Mvula) and closer ‘The Beggar’ are given new life. With Bey allowing the tracks plenty of room to breathe, Glasper improvises delicately on the piano stretching and embellishing simple backing tracks into freeform odysseys while Bey freestyles over the top.
Tonight may not have been quite the hits-littered rap show that some fans were hoping for, but then if you’re a Yasiin Bey fan you never really do get exactly what you expect, though it’s always something great and unexpected. What it is though is a unique and rare show from Bey and Glasper, one which showcases a side to Bey that is rarely given the credit it deserves.