Yasiin Bey can't catch a break, it seems. Partway through his set at Oakland's Fox Theater Friday night, as part of the "final shows in the U.S." for the Brooklyn-raised rapper once known as Mos Def, a fan in the crowd upset at Bey's retirement plans shouted his disapproval.
"When someone tells you they're retirin', and you shout out 'no,' that doesn't mean they change their mind," said Bey. "They've thought about it."
But by all circumstantial evidence Friday night, the fans may not need to worry too much. On a short tour announced the same day Bey finally sorted out his legal issues with the country of South Africa, the enigmatic rapper only made passing reference onstage to his planned retirement from music and film. Mostly, he seemed to be having the time of his life, and if anything, the notion of quitting seemed to fuel a rejuvenation of his spirit. Along with the all-purpose advisory that every "last show" announcement be taken with a 50,000-lb. grain of salt, the man is simply too good, and too connected to his music to quit.
Case in point: when the midnight curfew arrived, and the theater lights came up, Bey was still on stage, negotiating to play another song. (He did.)
With a set heavy on songs from his 2009 release The Ecstatic ("Priority," "Twilite Speedball" and "Auditorium" were highlights), the evening felt timeless, really. Bey interpolated Grandmaster Flash's "The Message" and A Tribe Called Quest's "Check the Rhime," toasting and ad-libbing; improvised on Sun Ra's "Space is the Place"; and even sang the Sinatra chestnut "It Was a Very Good Year" to kick off "Children's Story," from his landmark collaboration with Talib Kweli, Black Star.
"Time is relative," Bey said.
When performing new songs from his recent output, or the 2012 track "Black Radio" recorded with Robert Glasper (who was at the theater Friday, fresh from a residency at SFJAZZ), it was clear that Bey still possesses an innate ability to focus the spirit of a music's pulse through vocalizing; a role cemented in early hip-hop and traded, over the years, for overly lyrical or overly stylized approaches. That came to the fore with set closer "Umi Says," from his solo debut Black on Both Sides, the same song he closed with when I last saw him, in 2010.
So as for retiring? With Bey, music simply moves through his every cell. I'll bet $50 he's back on the road within five years.