Yasiin Bey, formerly known as Mos Def, is re-imagining what it means for fans to experience music. His new album Negus is exclusively available during ticketed listening sessions taking place at the Brooklyn Museum. The listening sessions will run through January 2020, and the album component will not be released on streaming services or hard copy – not any time soon at least.
It’s been 10 years since Yasiin Bey last released an album. Such a long hiatus in between albums helps boost both intrigue and hype for his new material, especially since his last album, 2009’s The Ecstatic, received such high praise across the boards. Nothing builds anticipation quite like a popular artist making something great, and then stepping away while they’re ahead. (Think about the case of Frank Ocean. After the success of Ocean’s beloved debut album Channel Orange, he more or less disappeared for the next 4 years. The interim period generated a massive buzz and endless speculation about the album that would eventually come to be the classic Blonde.) If The Ecstatic were not a great album, it’s hard to believe Negus the exhibit would exist in the first place. It’s hard to imagine a huge amount of people would be willing to buy a ticket, go to a museum in Brooklyn, and sit and listen to an album while surrounded by strangers, if Yasiin Bey’s most recent album wasn’t any good. Of course Black on Both Sides’ timelessness would still create buzz – but the anticipation would be lackluster without The Ecstatic.
Currently, Negus is more of an experience than it is a traditional album. Of course, there’s the music component, but there are many other elements that play an equal or out sized role in the project, all of which are intrinsically part of the listening experience. Think about all the different environments you listen to music in: where are you?; Who you are with?; What you are doing? There’s no singular answer to any of these questions because we all take music with us everywhere we go nowadays. It’s the soundtrack to so many of the various things we do everyday. Now, as we describe the particulars of the Negus experience, try to compare it to how you listen to music in general, and think about how you’d feel if one of your favorite artists put out music like Yasiin Bey has.
Here’s what it’s like:
Before walking into the exhibit, there’s an introduction and background written on the wall, similar to how descriptions are commonly displayed for museum exhibits. Here’s where Yasiin Bey goes into detail about the inspiration for the project: “Negus (pronounced neh-goose) takes its name from the word for “king” or “ruler” in Ge` ez, one of the ancient Semitic languages of Ethiopia. Bey associates the term with Prince Alämayyähu Tewodros and others who have led noble lives, including Henrietta Lacks and Nipsey Hussle.”
Upon entering, you are given over-the-ear headphones and asked to put your phone in a sealed bag. Without phone access, the audience doesn’t have any outside distractions, and is forced to fully engaged with the experience. Very intentional on Bey’s part. Classical music, which was originally composed for this exhibit, plays on the headphones as an introduction to Yasiin Bey’s album. The classical music segment is 10-15 minutes, which gives you time to walk around and examine the artwork in the room. There are three large murals across the walls: one colorful abstract piece, one reminiscent of a starry night sky, and the third and most mesmerizing is a tribute to the late Nipsey Hussle on a red cloth with gold cursive letters sewn on.
There is seating in the exhibit room, including what looked like upside down milk crates with seat cushions fastened on top (note these seats were sold in the gift shop for about $400). Of the 75 people in the space, most were sitting, but many were also standing. Everyone was looking around at each other, exploring this unique environment, waiting for the classical music to end and for Yasiin Bey’s rap – mostly rap at least – album to start. By the time the first song came on, everyone stopped looking around and a wave of concentration careened over the room. The first couple of songs on the album were heavily produced kaleidoscopic trips into hectic experimental hip hop, full of digital chaos in the form of sonic lasers, synths, and vocal distortion. As the music behind Negus became more discordant, Yasiin Bey’s vocals remained stoic, continuing his languid rap style that was prominent on The Ecstatic. At various points over the 28-minute album, his signature philosophical and abstract lyricism sounded more like spoken word than rap, like in the song where he asks his professor about all sorts of words, as he seeks a deeper meaning. For example, “Hey professor, what do you mean by the term the modern world?”
Given the ten-year hiatus between projects, there could be no expectation for the music behind Negus. Despite the maximal experimenting sounds of the album, it has moments where you recognize some New York boom bap production that Mos Def was originally known for. It’s loosely a hip hop album, but it’s more trip hop than rap, and the production is more psychedelic electronica than East Coast hip hop.
Overall, we really enjoyed the album. However, it is really frustrating that the exhibit is a one and done listen. Once the album finished, one of the fellow listeners summed up what most of us in the room were feeling: “it sucks I can’t listen to it again.” It does suck. But that thought also made me realize that we were lucky to listen to it in the first place. And since Negus isn’t available online or on CD, who knows if we’ll ever get the chance to listen to it again; the music might have to exist only as far as that sole listening experience can take us. The bits and pieces that stood out enough to be remembered will be the album’s legacy, and they’ll live on as fragments of fleeting music. It’s actually kind of fascinating to think about how much that reality strengthens the bond between the music and the environment in which the listener experiences it. Assuming the music from Negus remains only in exhibit-form, it will maintain a mystique unmatched by anything available on-demand. 🍑