In January 2016, rapper/actor Yasiin Bey announced his departure from entertainment. “I’m retiring from the music recording industry as it is currently assembled today—and also from Hollywood, effective immediately,” the artist proclaimed. “I’m releasing my final album this year, and that’s that.” In the 10-minute clip, posted to Kanye West’s personal website, Bey—formerly known as Mos Def—sounded weary, yet resolute. He was being detained in South Africa after trying to leave the country on a World Passport. Bey had been living in Cape Town since 2013, seemingly content with a low-key existence away from the spotlight.
Over the years, the rapper has been responsible for some of underground hip-hop’s most resonant music. 1998’s Mos Def and Talib Kweli Are Black Star, with friend and fellow Brooklyn lyricist Talib Kweli, is a widely heralded classic, and a year later Bey released Black on Both Sides, a remarkably nuanced LP full of introspective soul. Bey’s sophomore album—The New Danger, released five years later to the day in 2004—marked a drastic shift from the relaxed aura of his first record. With beats by producer Minnesota and contributions from his rock band, Black Jack Johnson, Bey opted for an edgy rock sound that occasionally missed the mark. But if nothing else, at least he sounded inspired, like he actually gave a shit about the art he’s releasing. After 2006’s True Magic, another dud released to fulfill Bey’s contract at Geffen Records, he rebounded on 2009’s The Ecstatic, a flurry of repurposed beats by Stones Throw affiliates.
Dec. 99th, Bey’s new album with producer Ferrari Sheppard, is by far the worst thing he’s ever released. I’m not just talking music; I mean this is the saddest thing—album, commercial, or film—with which Bey’s been associated. There’s nothing even remotely redeeming here, and it makes me wonder how long the rapper was awake before he wrote and recorded this material. For its 31 minutes, Bey sleepwalks through every track, mumbling nonsensical flows that never connect at all. And when he’s not doing that, he whistles through these instrumentals—like a poor man’s Negan here to terrorize Rick Grimes. Instead of a finished project, Dec. 99th feels like a demo that listeners should never hear. These are the lines you fumble through while you think of better lines to write. On “Local Time,” the message is noble enough, but the rapper’s lethargic drone makes it tough to digest for a discernible extent: “We experience tests today/Above all, we are blessed today/Same as every day/In a special way.” Bey built his career on these sorts of affirmations, but they land with a thud on Dec. 99th. It’s as if the rapper no longer believes his own words, or he’s tired of hearing himself say them.
The only bright spots come from Sheppard’s soundtrack, but even those are few. “Tall Sleeves” boasts dark, smoldering synths that emit a sultry vibe. Tracks “Special Dedication” and “Heri” feel lush and aerated, giving Bey evocative canvases on which to create. But for the remainder, especially on “Blade in the Pocket,” “Seaside Panic Room” and “Shadow in the Dark,” the music sounds underdeveloped, exposing Bey’s disengaged, flat mumbling in the harshest possible light. While Bey and Sheppard share the blame for this debacle, Dec. 99th is ultimately a bigger strike against the rapper’s legacy. For an artist who once uplifted the masses, it seems he needs someone to do the same for him. Maybe he’s leaving at the right time.