AWGE/A Country Called Earth
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Mos Def really could have been one of the greatest of all time. He had all the necessary tools and the talent. He had lyrics, flow, voice, charisma, and stage performance. Hell, he could even sing. And, in the beginning, during the ’90s, he had the music to back it up.
From his early verses as a member of Urban Thermo Dynamics/Medina Green, to his early 12”s with Rawkus Records, to the Black Star album with Talib Kweli, to his standout debut solo album Black on Both Sides (1999), it seemed like even the sky wasn’t the limit for the Mighty Mos Def. He was even one of the better rapper-actors in the field; he had actually worked as an actor longer than he had been a rapper. As the ’90s turned into the ’00s, he seemed poised to begin his march towards musical domination.
It would be easy to spend thousands of words talking about those early days, because if nothing else, it would prevent you from having to think about the subsequent fall. Even as Mos’ film career flourished in the early ’00s, he stumbled musically. Both 2004’s The New Danger and 2006’s True Magic were missteps for different reasons. While New Danger was a bloated, over-ambitious mess, True Magic sounded like a phoned-in attempt to fulfill his contract with Geffen Records. He rebounded during the late ’00s with a few strong guest appearances and The Ecstatic (2009), a much stronger entry into his discography that showed that when Mos gave a fuck, he could still make damn good music.
But in the years following The Ecstatic, Mos, now going by Yasiin Bey, made more headlines for what he was getting into off record than on record. He became a deeply involved political activist, but there were also the embarrassing paternity cases and subpar live performances. Then there were the embarrassing international issues involving South Africa, where he took up residence in recent years and attempted to use a “World Passport” to reenter the country. It all culminated earlier this year when Mos a.k.a. Yasiin announced his retirement from film and music.
It would also be easy to spend thousands of words talking about the subsequent fall, because if nothing else, it would prevent you from talking about his latest album, December 99th. The first of three “retirement” albums, December 99th is a collaboration with Ferrari Sheppard, a Chicago-based journalist and activist best known for his Stop Being Famous and A Country Called Earth websites. The pair connected after Bey expressed his admiration for Sheppard’s work, leading to the two forming the group Dec. 99th and recording this passion-less snoozefest of an album.
December 99th is the spiritual sequel to True Magic. But whereas True Magic was about Mos/Yasiin getting free from Geffen Records, December 99th is the first step in him getting free from his career in the arts, and man, does he sound like he really doesn’t want to be here.
Presumably the best thing that can be said about the album is that at 31 minutes in length, it doesn’t waste too much of the listener’s time. But there’s a whole lot that’s bad. Most of the bad is an extension of the palpable sense that Bey barely felt like bothering with recording this album. This feeling manifests itself with Bey’s listless lyrical “performance.” He continues his mumbling lounge-singer shtick he created a decade ago, barely coherent as he murmurs faux-profound lyrics on nine tracks. He sort of raps, sort of sings, but commits to neither.
Not to be too on the nose, but the quality of this album is pretty much summed up by the title of the first track: “NAW.” Though “NAW” ostensibly stands for “Needs and Wants,” it doesn’t satisfy either. Instead, Bey warbles lyrical word salad over sluggish, gothic keys, punctuated by lines like, “I hope you got what you need and you need what you want.” It’s not exactly his most profound moment.
It’s doesn’t help that Bey’s vocals are all leaden by mounds of pointless reverb and vocal delay effects. Maybe the effects were added after the fact to make his performance sound more inspired, but it still falls flat. The effects make “Local Time” and “Seaside Panic Room” into plodding slogs that feel twice their two-and-a-half minute length. “Shadows in the Dark” is another lowlight, with Bey lethargically rambling with increasing incoherence over a repetitive guitar track.
Occasionally, there are flashes of something interesting. “Blade in the Pocket” sounds promising for 30 seconds or so, with Bey rapping slowly over a stripped-down drum track and ghostly sounds, before devolving into another braying mumble-fest. On “Tall Sleeves,” Bey successfully puts together a few cohesive verses, and it results in the only song where he sounds like he cares.
The album eventually craters toward the end, with the one-two punch of “IT GOES” and “Special Dedication.” The latter is an even-more-inferior version of the preceding song, both versions exemplifying everything that’s wrong with December 99th. It’s unclear whether one is supposed to be a remix of the other, or Bey just kicked the same verses twice on two different songs and figured no one would notice. Or maybe he didn’t even notice himself.
“Heri,” the album’s closer, is the best track on December 99th, not coincidentally because it’s an instrumental. It’s a layered, bordering on complex production, featuring ethereal vocal samples and soulful pianos. It’s still not clear how good/bad Sheppard is as a producer. He really shines on “Heri,” but the rest of the album’s beats are pretty dull. It’s not clear if Bey is dragging the music down with his performance, or there really wasn’t much there to begin with. If nothing else, “Heri” shows he’s capable of being interesting.
Bey is still capable of giving a fuck about recording music. In 2015, he released the dope loosey track “Sensei On the Black” with renowned producer Ski Beatz. He also had an inspired guest verse on A$ap Rocky’s “Back Home.” And while the loosey “Basquiat’s Ghost Writer” wasn’t the best song he ever recorded, he at least sounded animated. He also can apparently turn in an inspired live performance when he wants to, if reviews of his recent concert at the Apollo are to be believed.
The emcee reportedly has two more albums to release as part of his swan song: As Promised, a long-rumored album collaboration with New Orleans’ producer Mannie Fresh, and his “final” final album, Negus In Natural Person. If Bey does indeed plan on going through with his retirement, here’s hoping that these final two installments are much more inspired than December 99th. Otherwise, he’s destined to go out with a whimper, instead of a bang.
Notable Tracks: “Heri” | “Tall Sleeves”
BUY Dec. 99th’s December 99th via Tidal