An evening of hip-hop could have been no better than with the duo Common and Mos Def. Hardly an “opening act,” Common gave us a nice sample of his ten-year career, performing abridged versions of songs from albums like Resurrection and Like Water for Chocolate. His stage presence was magnanimous. While hopping around to the beat, Common and his DJ were on the same wavelength, often segueing from one track to the next without even a glance. A charismatic MC, he got the initially shy crowd fist-pumping, arm-waving, or singing along when the verses weren’t too rapid or repetitive. For one special student, Common offered a slow dance and on-stage serenade of “The Light.”
As a rapper (or, as Common would probably prefer, poet) he definitely wowed the upstate crowd, but we were put in a trance only when his performance partner DJ Dummy was allowed a few solo minutes. Putting body parts such as his nose and elbows to good use, Dummy gave the audience a new appreciation for how incredibly difficult DJing actually is. Dummy’s exhibition of exactly what type of ear it takes to match up key, rhythm, and syncopation from two different records was one of my favorite parts of the opening act, and according to some, the show’s better half.
Mos Def was an entirely different story. Apparently, Common’s “Basement Elevation” where we could be ourselves was turned into a back alley — where else would you see five guys, dressed in black, sporting bandannas, and two of them as bodyguards? The ominous “Boogie Man Song,” the first track on the October release The New Danger introduced the crowd to the new, gangster Mos Def. Fortunately, the past can’t be entirely forgotten; Mos Def is still too good to completely ignore considering his classics like Black on Both Sides and Black Star under his belt.
Without delay, Mos gave the crowd what could easily be the best live half-hour of hip-hop I’ve seen to date. “Mathematics,” a personal favorite from his 1999 release, was followed by “Definition,” a classic political and personal statement, with Mos performing both his own and Talib Kweli’s verses. The only thing that could’ve made the show better at this point would be the two newest examples of Mos Def’s hip-hop dominance: “Close Edge” and “Sunshine.” The crowd was also hoping to make the show legendary and cap it off with “Respiration,” a contemplative reflection on inner city life and ways of overcoming it, and the decade-old classic “Body Rock,” which Mos recorded with A Tribe Called Quest. Needless to say, Mos fulfiilled all this and more.
At this point, if Mos had walked off stage, I would’ve been satisfied. Unfortunately, as I had feared, he digressed into the dregs of the new album. Quasi-beats like “The Panties” which feature Mos’s attempt at jazz vocals, rather than the rapping that made him famous in the first place, became far too numerous. We also learned a lot about his personality — mainly, Mos Def can be a real asshole. On several occasions, he insulted members of the crowd, upstate New York, and even his respectable hip-hop colleagues The Roots. By the end, not even an inspiring “Umi Says” could save the show. An extremely weak, three-song encore only soured the aftertaste even more.
Even then, the performance doesn’t detract from my respect for both men as the best MC’s out there. The most authentic display of hip-hop, the freestyle, was offered by both performers, and from Mos Def on several occasions. Common told us when it was coming — though when else other than in freestyle would the Big Red, College Ave, and “Collegetown Caf