Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Dec.99 - December 99th Review

Familiarity as it relates to art is an important concept, both in the music itself and the marketing behind it. Especially in our intensely digital age, allowing curious souls ease in which to spot and enjoy your music goes a long way. Marketing 101 they'd call it, as image, appeal, and intrigue all influence a clear common goal of mass consumption. With that being said, do you know who Dec. 99th are? No? Well, do you know who Yasiin Bey is? Half of you might've answered yes, with the full majority coming through upon revealing Bey's former stage name; Mos Def. Already off to a rough start, Yasiin Bey's work with Ferrari Sheppard, the producing half of this new project, comes seven years after his last official appearance with 2009's The Ecstatic. With a new name, new group name, delayed release date, fake retirement, Tidal exclusivity, and limited promotion, it's not a surprise Bey's return to the limelight has been quite dim. For those inquisitive enough to look through the spider web though, December 99th actuates another layer of disarray, both sonically and conceptually. Spending close to half a decade in the motherland, namely South Africa, some of that illegally, Bey's cultural subversion and social awareness feels admittedly distant, especially for Americans clamoring to hear his work.

In a sense, finding your way through December 99th's maze can be a compelling experience. Unlike his former releases, when he was still on American soil, like the vast majority of rappers we know and love today, Dec. 99th comes from a foreign land, ripe with their own social dilemmas, equality mishaps, and cultural affairs. With his name change, outed disdain of Hollywood and the music industry, and a favoring of his newfound home, Bey is in a curious state where, to him, time presses onwards in a different direction, but to us, he's frozen in a land outside of current trends, styles, and shticks. Combine this with Ferrari Sheppard's production, quite literally his first and only project, and you're poised for an album far outside traditional norms. This shows throughout, as Bey contends with an untrained singing voice as Sheppard focuses on brooding Abstract Hip-Hop elements. There are times these two conflicting opposites come together, like 'Blade In The Pocket,' which, whether intended or not, comes off substantially like post-millennium Tricky, Trip-Hop focused and all. The beat is dangerous and lingering, as Bey's mischievous proclamations find fear and cluelessness clashing.

This song, and its well executed transition into 'SPESH,' are just one of the many overlapping elements found throughout December 99th. One such example is 'IT GOES' and 'Special Dedication,' which feel like two halves of the same pie, finding Bey pondering existential thought: "the poverty and wealth of nations is not greater than the entire cosmic situation." Bey finds recurring motifs like these, both visually and lyrically, to match his growing paranoia living in a state of solitude. That's likely not that case, it's merely just my interpretation. And unfortunately, that's a side effect of his growing distance from American culture. I don't understand December 99th's goals, intentions, beliefs, or quandary's. Always a conscious rapper, Bey, even if singing, clearly sets his sights on ongoing problems here. Which ones? I have no clue. Maybe there are none, and Bey intends to be thinking cosmically as that aforementioned quote implies. Once again, we return to the concept of familiarity, and the struggles in which one can enjoy the elusive December 99th, something far removed from our daily consumption. Whether he's contesting issues seen in Africa, or elaborating upon his own internally created constructs, Bey makes it difficult for those outside of his circle to understand.

Sonically it's easier to understand, harder to appreciate. Thankfully Bey happened upon a talented person, one Ferrari Sheppard, that, despite his complete lack of experience, rose above your platitude of aspiring Soundcloud beat-makers. Ironically, the two are able to live in relative harmony as Bey's singing, his weakest aspect as a musician, runs throughout the piece, falling in line with Sheppard's unqualified state. His issues are never glaring, but he rarely impresses behind the boards. The aforementioned 'Blade In The Pocket' is a definite high mark, but other than that we don't see his impact balloon until the finale 'Heri.' This five-minute track, nearly two-minutes longer than any other song here, assuredly wins my best song prize for December 99th. Most shocking yet? It doesn't feature Bey. Entirely instrumental, the calming piece, which finds pianos organically intertwine with a wonderfully designed sample hymn, ends the curious state of December 99th off in a feeling we can all relate to; comfort. In stark contrast to the darker connotations found elsewhere, it's clear 'Hari' is meant to signal the dawn of a new day, with brighter hope on the way. Can't say I'm disappointed the rest of the LP doesn't feature a similar tone, as the impact of 'Hari' would've been severely hampered.

The question remains, is Bey the worst part of December 99th? No, not necessarily. One immaculate production doesn't nullify the handful of unmemorable pieces like 'Shadow In The Dark' or 'Special Dedication' where the production merely exists, barely conscious of that ongoing existence. Throwing 'SPESH' in there as well, the lingering sounds act more as interludes than physical backbones for a singer gone rogue. It seems, in fact, that Bey forced attention away from the music here to give his humming more credit. They're weak and empty, and when compared to the aforementioned highs and even 'Local Time' and 'Tall Sleeves,' two lead singles, it's obvious Sheppard is capable of more. Those last two, if you're a mid-2000's Mos Def fan, are your closest beacon to the Ecstatic days, with bouncy, almost electric chords, and an energized Bey at the forefront. With the solid opener 'NAW,' these three are good, but not great. Regardless, they find Bey and Sheppard acting in unison, rather than one or the other taking the reigns. An all too rare occurrence on December 99th, an album that had potential even if no one, including Yasiin Bey and Ferrari Sheppard, knew about it. 

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