Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Mos Def London Concert Review Recap

As reported by Tom Horan at the London Telegraph

There was a moment during this night at the art-deco Forum in Kentish Town when a thrilling pulse of collective excitement swept round the hall and the hairs stood up on the back of a thousand necks. Sadly it was during the warm-up – the DJ had just cut from one particularly strong tune to an even bigger crowd-pleaser. It was a good twenty minutes before Brooklyn’s Mos Def took the stage.

In only his second ever UK appearance and faced with a room practically drowning in goodwill toward him, the 35-year-old rapper and actor born Dante Smith-Bey singularly failed to capitalise on the pre-show buzz. Quite how is hard to pinpoint. He wasn’t helped by the same DJ deciding to signal his arrival with the Oasis song 'Wonderwall’, the trick that Jay-Z used to open his famous Glastonbury show. But this was a very different crowd, and it was met with boos and whistles.

The kettle drums may also have been a contributory factor. On paper it sounds like a brilliant wheeze: to liven up the often deadly dull format of DJ plus rapper, the rapper plays some massive floor drums. Thus the show began with Mos Def entering stage right under moody red lighting and bashing out a rhythm with a couple of hickory mallets, a trick he pulled off in some style recently on the Letterman show in America.

But while he may be a gifted wordsmith and garnered decent reviews for his turn in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, Smith-Bey seemed to have left his percussion shoes back in New York. I’ve seen junior-school timpanists inject Holst’s The Planets with more funk than Mos Def seemed able to muster.

Yet still there were hints and intimations that the Forum might get the full-blooded performance that it was clearly itching for. Mos Def’s is a soulful, musical kind of hiphop, and the loops that his DJs kept serving up had mouth-watering elements of jazz and Motown. Frustratingly, though, his lyrics were often lost in the mix. Songs that promised a rousing climax mostly fizzled out.

Mos Def’s album from earlier this year, The Ecstatic, has some fantastic highs, when his ability to elide and work a rhyme lends his songs a truly captivating quality. Tonight we got him doing karaoke versions of 'Billie Jean’. His moonwalk was quite amusing, but it couldn’t hide the fact that this was an opportunity wasted.

As reported by Angus Batey at London's Guardian four out of 5 stars

There were passages of the 90-minute set where he ambled aimlessly, songs collapsing in mumbled a cappella couplets. He sang most of Michael Jackson's Billie Jean and even had the Forum audience bellowing the chorus of Simply Red's Holding Back the Years (then desperately trying to pretend they were doing so ironically).

At his best, Mos Def fuses metaphysics with politics in stanzas that put him alongside the finest hip-hop lyricists. In the superb Auditorium, he writes about how poets can harness the collective subconscious to effect change in times of war – "Shoulders the lion's roar, voice is the siren/ I swing round, ring out, and bring down the tyrant." Lines like those, and the opening lyrics of his 10-year-old song, Hip Hop – "Speech is my hammer, bang the world into shape" – sounded thrilling and vital and, despite his laid-back-cum-lackadaisical presentation, were filled with real importance.

Getty Images

(video courtesy of nitesun & flipmandem87)

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