Kanye West is a busy man right now. Held up in his Los Angeles labyrinth, the bohemian beat-maker and rapper has been putting the finishing touches on his long-delayed new album ‘Swish’, building up to its apparently set-in-stone February 11 release by rationing out new tracks to Soundcloud every week until the record finally drops. “Don’t ask me for anything till after I’m finish my album,” he tweeted last month in a show of dedication to completing the project. Ye’s retreated to his lair for the final push. No sleep ‘til Yeezy Season.
But for rap heads constantly refreshing West’s Twitter feed for clues – will Paul McCartney reunite with Rihanna, is Skepta the new Bon Iver; stuff like that – yesterday morning delivered an unexpected blow to the solar plexus.
Without warning, Kanye’s official website contained nothing but a near-11 minute audio clip titled ‘A Message from Yasiin Bey’, in which the artist formerly known as Mos Def – the Brooklynite who went from underground rap star, heralded for his dexterous flow, razor-sharp lyricism and golden age rap aesthetics, to a globe-trotting political activist – announced he is to retire from music.
Bey was in the news last week after being arrested at a South African airport for an “immigration violation”. His troubles, as reported by The Guardian, were brought about by an expired tourist visa and attempts to leave the country he’s resided in since 2013 with the little-recognised “world passport”.
Presumably recorded over the phone, the hissy recording finds him addressing his treatment in South Africa with a slam poetry-like freestyle that leads to an assertion that he’s “retiring from the music recording industry as it is currently assembled today”, as well as from Hollywood, where he’s built a very credible filmography as an actor. “I’ll be releasing my final album this year and that’s that,” Bey vows.
You have to take rapper’s retirements with a hefty dash of salt. Everyone from Kanye’s former boss and regular cohort Jay Z, to Chicago backpack rapper Lupe Fiasco, have threatened, with fingers firmly crossed behind their back, to hang up the mic for good. But Bey’s declaration is about as surprising as a crocked footballer who announces they’re calling it a day some two years after last pulling on a shirt. It’s almost six years since his most recent album ‘The Ecstatic’ dropped, and his output since has been sparse and erratic, restricted mostly to a handful of guest spots and leaked numbers the artist himself has been quick to disown.
For fans, the experience has been maddening. But it’s easy to understand why we’ve been willing to display limitless patience. Bey is a wonderful rapper – fluid, wounding, and with a bluesy musicality that naturally emanates from his larynx. Known to his mother as Dante Terrell Smith, he grew up in Brooklyn during the crack plague that swallowed up the borough’s low-income neighbourhoods – an interest the arts providing an escape from the gang violence and poverty that lurked all around.
Funneling hardship into music is a classic rap narrative. But as both a member of the group Black Star and solo artist, Mos brought a level of deftness and perception to his material that’s almost unparalleled among his peers. On ‘Mathematics’ he examined numerology to slice into various social issues, while ‘Rock n Roll’ saw him call out white appropriation of black music (“I said, Elvis Presley ain’t got no soul/Chuck Berry is rock ‘n’ roll”). If Kendrick Lamar has helped make hard-hitting political commentary a key rap tenet again, then Mos should be ostensibly primed right now for a seat at the head table.
A desire to further explore the issues he rapped about so cuttingly has seen Mos drift from music in recent years, though. In 2011 he announced he was dropping the name Mos Def for Yasiin Bey. “I didn’t want to have to deal with having any moniker or separation between the self that I see and know myself as,” he told MTV show Sucker Free. The projects the activist has been involved in since includes an absolutely harrowing short film released by the human rights organisation Reprieve, that saw Bey withstand the same forced-feeding methods used at Guantanamo Bay.
So what’s next? Whatever nation Bey pitches up in, he’s promised a final album before bowing out of music industry. The newly-released audio message sees him shout out Kanye, Kendrick and producer Madlib – fellow hip-hop hippies that would no doubt help him spark again if called upon. Even Chicago street rapper Lil Durk gets a mention, hinting at a potentially daring new direction. Whatever the case, Bey’s public’s patience will remain unshakable. Rap needs Mos Def more than Yasiin needs rap.