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Live at the Apollo, Yasiin Bey Says Farewell: "You Better Be Real to Yourself"

Playing the first of a final run of shows, the artist formerly known as Mos Def raged against the machines.

Photo by by Shahar Azran/WireImage

A few bars into premiering an unnamed new track last night, Yasiin Bey instructed his DJ to stop the music. Visibly annoyed, he gripped his retro-style microphone, addressing the nearly sold out crowd assembled at Harlem's world-famous Apollo Theater.

"Put your fucking machines down," he snarled.

On cue, Bey's dutiful audience of hip-hop devotees whooped and applauded in unison, as if in instinctual or knee-jerk reaction to the sentiment. Already on their feet for the Brooklyn native, they hung on to every word, knowing full well that this momentous homecoming show at one of America's most culturally significant concert halls is also intended as one of the rapper formerly known as Mos Def's last.

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"Every last one of you with a fucking robot in your pocket: be here." Bey continued. "It's not a moment for you to capture and stunt about later." A lean, dubby echo dripped off the end of his sentences, a product of soundboard frippery or a mastery of the subtleties of his mic.

Most appeared to comply with Bey's sharp dictum, but not all. Far enough from the stage not to be made an example of, a woman toward the back of the orchestra section fiddled with her iPhone, its overly bright screen permeating the near darkness of her row. She opened the Voice Memos app, unsubtly beginning to record his impassioned plea to respect the artistic process by simply experiencing these selections from the forthcoming Negus In Natural Person, purportedly his last ever rap album.

It's hard to blame her, or for that matter anyone else here, for denying Bey's final wishes by attempting to document what was happening. Marked by a relative absence of new music or other creative endeavors, his elusiveness in recent years made this event seem like some impossible dream, one sure to evaporate by morning. No doubt many in this room have felt the stings of his false-starts, those abruptly cancelled concerts at venues like New York's Highline Ballroom and Philadelphia's Union Transfer. In an age of social media oversharing, Bey's considerably private South African life left fans mystified as to why one of the most respected rappers on either side of the millennium line had essentially dropped out of their own lives, and his re-emergence only to announce his departure hardly soothed any concerns.

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At various points during the performance, an eclectic set populated largely by tracks from his three proper studio albums, Bey gave frank, if occasionally cryptic, insights into the rationale behind his self-imposed retirement. "I appreciate entertainment, but I'm over it," he said, shortly before kicking into "Auditorium" off 2009's The Ecstatic. As if in conflicted defiance of that very statement, he coaxed onstage rap pioneer Slick Rick to do his verse over the Madlib beat. Decked out in a purple shirt and a plethora of literally shimmering jewelry, The Ruler spat while Bey shimmied. "That just happened," he said, delighted by the execution.

Though billed in such a way ("Yasiin Bey and Friends") that suggested a cavalcade of guest stars would appear, the only other guest performer to take the stage was fellow Rawkus Records alumnus Pharoahe Monch. The perpetually underrated Queens MC came through for the duo's epic Lyricist Lounge 2 cut "Oh No!" as well as his own solo hit "Simon Says." During the latter, Bey moved about the stage with considerable glee, again unwilling or unable to mask his emotions. Still, the room noted the absence of other famous friends and prior collaborators like Busta Rhymes, Kanye West, and, most glaringly, his Black Star cohort Talib Kweli.

Naturally, playing a mix of fan favorites and thoughtful deep cuts helped offset this rap game Waiting For Godot atmosphere. Despite denying attendees a rendition of his beloved hit "Ms. Fat Booty," Bey delivered a handful of songs from Black On Both Sides, including "Mathematics" and an uplifting "Umi Says" that peaked with a euphoric call-and-response singalong. For that album's "Hip Hop," which prompted just about the entire audience to stand up and groove, he swapped in a reference to Trayvon Martin. Though less well-received upon initial release than its predecessor, The New Danger found a warm reception from The Apollo crowd as Bey played the upbeat "Life Is Real" and silken flip "The Panties."

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Comprising close to a half hour's worth of material from Negus In Natural Person, the concert's closing section proved both enlightening and frustrating. "I think this is the best album I've ever done," Bey said of the as-yet unreleased record. To those eager to hear more familiar cuts from the rest of his discography, that stock statement may have felt a bit hollow, particularly as it resonated against the heavily electronic production of the new songs. The first of these exuded a classic sleng teng digi-dancehall feel, while others vaguely recalled the global hybrid bass sounds of Durban gqom and Lisbon kuduro. Less abrasive than the clear comparison point, Kanye West's Yeezus, the beats gave him plenty of room to wiggle his lyrics around and through. For two of the songs, Bey preempted the DJ by performing them a capella, only to replay them with the music immediately thereafter. Afterwards, he sheepishly waved while exiting the stage, never to return for even a perfunctory customary encore.

Even with a run of shows planned next month at the prestigious Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., the inauspicious way in which Bey intends to make his industry exit betrays his legend as a rap icon. From his conscious come-up to his maddening inactivity as a G.O.O.D. Music artist, he always maintained a certain exceptionalism that distinguished him even from his presumed peers. The way we talk about Yasiin Bey carries the existential weight of hip-hop itself: He's a poet in the tradition of Gil Scott-Heron, a revolutionary voice like Curtis Mayfield, and a superlative rapper whose talents transcend casual ranking criteria. Bey's legacy is unlikely to find a successor, but even he humbly acknowledges being a vessel for this artistic light. "I'm not gonna pretend I'm special," he said. "The gift is special."

Despite of the night's minor shortcomings, an abundance of fan love kept Bey afloat. His reputation as a tortured creative aside, the man present onstage was indeed at his most human and personable, less so the spectacular hip-hop specter bedeviled by compounding exiles—some self-inflicted, others harshly imposed. Rather than bidding his loyalists farewell, he shared his outlook with them as best as he could, hoping to relate in ways he'd been unable to these past few years. "You can't be everything to everybody," he said, "But you better be real to yourself."

Gary Suarez is a writer based in New York. Follow him on Twitter.