Two years ago, writer Ferrari Sheppard interviewed Yasiin Bey following the announcement that police officer Daniel Pantaleo wouldn’t be indicted for choking and killing Eric Garner. The interview is barely comprehensible; Bey speaks for nearly four minutes, his voice dragging, his ideas abstract. He’s presumably answering a question that was posed before the recording began, but even that is unclear. The next day, Sheppard interviewed Bey again. Bey begins this interview by apologizing for the previous interview; he hadn’t slept, he’d been crying and he was in pain, he explains. He then goes on to speak about government corruption and the need for systemic change. Afterward, he follows those thoughts with a five-minute rant about World Star Hip-Hop. There’s a charming bareness to these interviews, but they mostly come off as directionless and amateur, raw footage in dire need of editing. December 99th, Bey and Sheppard’s collaborative album, is just as sloppy, but without the charm.
Yasiin Bey’s last album, The Ecstatic, was a globetrotting promenade. Bey (then Mos Def) leaped from continent to continent, reveling in the sights and sounds of the world. The album was cosmopolitan in the most ideal sense: even as Bey marveled at the beauty beyond America’s shores, he was equally conscious of pain and misery, tourism with tension. December 99th is placeless and indistinct. Despite spending the bulk of the year detained in South Africa, Bey spends December 99th turned stubbornly inward. His verses are strings of vague nonsense. “Coulda shoulda bees no honey, this hive is live” he says on “Tall Sleeves.” “Interloper perched at the nearest wall, mosquitoes, mosquitoes, ugly birds” he raps on “Seaside Panic Room.” Bey has always been a free-form rhymer, often emphasizing the sounds of words over their literal meanings (“A doorstep where death never come, spread across time ‘til my time never done” he rapped on 2002’s “I Against I”), but here even the rhymes lack flair. A sense of vague anxiety permeates the record, but it’s never developed. Bey frequently ends verses abruptly to sing, harmonize, or whistle as if wearied by his own lack of direction.
Sheppard’s dry compositions heighten Bey’s weak writing. His beats unravel rather than build, the sounds rolling out unceremoniously like dinner courses at an office party. “SPESH” features broken chords backed by ticking hi-hats and dulled bass. Some snaps and riffs shuffle in as the song progresses, but the song has the tempo and the excitement of a resting heart rate. “Shadow in the Dark” has some lift to it, but again there are barely any embellishments, drawing attention to Bey’s gibberish raps. “I’m concerned, but I ain’t a guardian over none of these hoes,” Bey raps to the clouds. Sheppard is a newcomer to production (his background is in visual art), but these beats don’t even have the audacity or curiosity of someone trying a new medium. They just exist, inoffensive and unmemorable, sonic cantaloupe.
The album generally just feels like a cash-in, with Sheppard primed to catch most of the windfall. Despite branding himself as against fame and superficiality (he rose to recognition via a blog titled “Stop Being Famous”), his cache is ultimately couched in orbiting famous people. He films them, he interviews them, he tweets about them and now he collaborates with them: He’s a fully evolved hypebeast.
Sheppard’s naked ambition is admirable in a weird way, but this album doesn’t even live up to the odd intimacy of Sheppard’s clout-chasing interviews, so ultimately he’s the one hung out to dry. After all, Bey’s legacy is already cemented (see The Ecstatic, Black on Both Sides, The Recstatic, Black Star, his verses on “Two Words” and “Double Trouble,” etc.), so this side project is easily forgiven (or more preferably forgotten). In fact, Bey already seems beyond it: He recently told a crowd at the Apollo that his upcoming album, Negus in Natural Person, is his best work. Good for him, but this is Sheppard’s debut and it’s the most slipshod thing he’s ever presented, across all mediums, including his tweets.
But this is what he wanted, isn’t it? After years of chasing fame he’s finally locked into orbit with a star. His only mistake is that it’s a star on the verge of supernova. Perhaps stop being famous is good advice.