Yasiin Bey, formerly known as Mos Def, has brought his Negus “listening installation” stateside.
After premiering Negus earlier this year at Art Basel Hong Kong, the Brooklyn rapper brought the exhibition to the Brooklyn Museum, where it will make its debut to the public on Friday, November 15. A private preview of the exhibit occurred last night and featured appearances from Bey, as well as Q-Tip and Dave Chappelle.
Described as “a listening installation of Yasiin Bey’s latest studio recording,” Negus is a 28-minute-long, eight-track album that’s accompanied by artwork from Ala Ebtekar, Julie Mehretu, and José Parlá (all created in collaboration with Bey). What adds to the allure of the exhibit is that the album “will not be released in any digital or analog mediums,” and that those who do attend the exhibit must lock their phones in a pouch, making the chances of someone pirating and sharing the project practically impossible. (The album isn’t played through speakers but individual pairs of headphones, making the experience similar to being at a silent disco.)
“There are a lot of other places and spaces to work and express; I’m not hostile against these other means of presentation and distribution, I’m just following a vision I had, and [am trying] to create as much positive space around it, so that it gets to breathe,” Bey said of the exhibit to Highsnobiety. “It’s not about being all things to all people, or a combative posture. It’s certainly not angry; it’s not a rallying cry or anything like that.”
The most devout Bey fans have plenty of time to make the pilgrimage to the Brooklyn Museum to experience Negus for themselves. (It’ll be up until January 26, 2020.) After that, it’s unknown if the exhibit will travel anywhere else. But is Negus, which is technically Def’s first solo album as Bey — Dec 99th was a collaborative album with Ferrari Sheppard — worth experiencing?
Here are five takeaways that may help you decide for yourself.
Originally touted as Negus In Natural Person, Negus is a challenging and compelling listen not only because of Bey’s lyrical dexterity but for its production, which is handled by FunkinEven, Lord Tusk, and ACyde. Reminiscent of ’80s electro, the production is brooding, sparse and slightly abrasive. Dissonant synths play an integral part in each track, oftentimes sporadically coming out of nowhere. Occasionally, the production even overpowers Bey himself, which may lead listeners to wonder if the project was mixed at all. Remember when Kanye West was proclaiming 2013’s Yeezus as a minimal album, only for fans to realize that it really wasn’t? Negus is that — a bare-bones production reminiscent of ’80s electro and hip-hop that helps build the album’s dark atmosphere.
Originally recorded in London in 2015, Negus is undoubtedly the darkest album Bey has made in his career. It’s not hopeless as much as it is exhausted, Bey providing a commentary on everything from Bobby Shmurda’s incarceration (“God save us, save Shmurda,” he appears to say during one of the album’s songs) to climate change (“Polar cap Kool-Aid, world on fire,” he states in the same song). He even builds a hook around questioning what terms like modern world, civilization, and industry mean. The themes not only resonate today but arguably reflect what Bey was enduring prior to 2015 as well as what he would experience after. In 2006, he staged a guerrilla performance of his protest single “Katrina Clap” the night of the MTV Music Awards, which led to his arrest. In 2013, he participated in a controversial viral video, where he was strapped down and force-fed. The video was to spread awareness of the unethical ways in which Guantanamo Bay prisoners were being forced to eat. In 2016, it was reported that Bey and his family had been living in Cape Town, South Africa illegally, which was discovered after he tried to leave the country with a “world passport.”
The subject matter seems to contrast the name of the album, considering Negus takes its name from the word for “king” or “ruler” in Ge` ez, one of the ancient Semitic languages of Ethiopia. But then again, being a king or ruler is never easy. Sure, there are the riches and the authority, but there’s also the dangers that come with such, too.
During the private preview, there were hour-long intervals for each showing. With each interval, listeners were only given one opportunity to listen to the 28-minute album, when it could actually accommodate two listens. For someone known for their lyrical prowess, Bey isn’t an easily-digestible MC. Negus offers the most extreme form of that, Bey offering lines that are hard to catch on an initial listen unless they’re repeated. There are many times he even uses a half-mumbled rap delivery, evoking the frustration that some fans feel with the likes of Earl Sweatshirt’s latest releases.
This, to a degree, could’ve been fixed by allotting two listens. Not only would attendees be able to sit with Negus a little bit more but there would still be ample time for the space to be prepared for the next round of people coming in to check out the exhibit.
Although the art displayed was beautiful (there’s an incredible piece dedicated to the late Nipsey Hussle), there wasn’t much of a narrative shared between the art and the music. Even brief quotes from the artists about their pieces would’ve been appreciated, considering the artists created their works after listening to Negus. Negus could’ve felt like more of an immersive experience with a more concrete narrative between all of the art attendees were taking in.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of Negus is seeing how other people engage with both the art and the music. After viewing the pieces that were on display some sat down on chairs, bobbed their heads, and tapped their feet. Some were in a meditative state, their eyes closed and body motionless. There was at least one person dancing around, happily hopping from one art piece to the next. Although the attendees were digesting the music in their own way it was still communal, people offering cool smiles to one another when they saw they were bobbing their heads the same, or finding amusement in the same part of a song.
“It’s not about how you’re supposed to feel or think. Just because I made it doesn’t mean I’m an authority in someone else’s emotional space,” Bey explained to Highsnobiety. “Instead, I want to clear the space so people can have their own experience with the work, as opposed to being didactic about it. You bring yourself, and you take it from there. I want to experience it, too, so I’m trying to get out of my own way, as it’s not just [my work]. It’s the energy of Brooklyn.”
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