It’s not quite rocket-surgery or anything, but I definitely believe in the maxim that too much of anything can be bad. And when I say “anything” I mean literally anything, from obvious stuff like food or crime, to less obvious stuff like talent, Kenny G albums or Target runs. Put a pin in “talent.”
That idea is why I sometimes feel bad for celebrities who seem legitimately bored with life because as it turns out, having all of the money in the world doesn’t mean you can’t run out of shit to try or experience. It’s kind of like having a bazillion television channels—it sounds great in theory, but you can still end up feeling like there’s absolutely nothing on television and fall down the rabbit-hole of Man Vs. Beast reruns which feature actual commentators—like Olympic gold medalist Carl Lewis—who provide tips to both a giraffe and zebra to help them in their quest to win a foot-race with a human sprinter. Apparently, as long as the animals realize it’s a race, they might do alright. The giraffe loses; the zebra gets it, though.
I think this argument also happens to artists who expand their horizons and fall into the trap of self-indulgence at the expense of a listenable consumer experience. Sometimes talent makes you bored with conventional practices, especially when you’re a commercially viable artist—think Lil Wayne’s rap-rock hybrid foray or Andre 3000’s whole career since 2003. In both of those examples, the artists seem to get bored with their genres and become artists who are genre-less. This isn’t always a bad thing, it’s just a pivot most likely due to the need to find new creative outlets and motivations.
Which brings us to Yasiin Bey, the artist formerly known as Mos Def: Bey has a new project called Negus, which is being presented as a sound installation-exhibit touring the world. To the best of our knowledge, it is making its U.S. debut Friday at the Brooklyn Museum in—you guessed it—Brooklyn, N.Y., where they paint murals of Biggie. The sound installation will run from Nov. 15, 2019, through Jan. 26, 2020.
According to the Brooklyn Museum website:
We present the U.S. debut of yasiin bey: Negus, a listening installation of yasiin bey’s latest studio recording, which will not be released in any digital or analog mediums. The Brooklyn premiere marks the 20th anniversary of bey’s Black on Both Sides, which is widely recognized as one of hip-hop’s most important albums.
The latest in a series of international presentations of Negus, the exhibition acknowledges the importance of hip-hop as a fundamental American art form by making the 8-track, 28-minute recording available without the distractions of technology (upon entering the gallery, visitors are given a case in which to lock their mobile devices). In addition to Negus, the exhibition includes artworks by Ala Ebtekar, Julie Mehretu, and José Parlá created in collaboration with bey, as well as original music by celebrated pianist by Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou.
Yasiin Bey is an extremely talented artist—and make no mistake, one of my favorites. Black on Both Sides, his debut hip-hop album celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, is a classic project and one of my favorite albums, regardless of genre. While I didn’t love his follow-up albums as much, I can’t deny his creativity or his talent. Even his live shows are must-see experiences (that sometimes go entirely off the rails). I respect that man and his art. At the same time, turning your albums into traveling art installations will, let’s face it, likely alienate a huge segment of his fan base in favor of a crowd that is probably more into the art than the creator of it; never mind that it’s extremely overindulgent and what happens when you’re so talented that you get bored with earth.
And I hate to be that guy, but I’m totally about to be that guy: The idea that the album can only truly be appreciated by being experienced within the confines of specifically curated art is about as narcissistic as you can get. This is some Kanye-level shit, here, folks. And what does that say of his previous projects? Were they maximized in terms of output?
This is where the “too much talent can be a bad thing” comes into play. I’m sure Yasiin Bey is just trying to find new ways to create his art. He could be an artist and make music and then release it via traditional methods (streaming, retail, etc.), but in his heart, he’s created something that is an “experience.” So much so that it needs to be treated like the art he believes it is, which means it must be in a gallery somewhere. And since we over-revere certain types of artwork, it ends up being reserved for a certain segment of people—and that doesn’t mean solely white people, but a certain more highbrow consumer of art.
This, to me, is like when Jay-Z rapped “Picasso Baby” off of nobody’s favorite album, Magna Carta Holy Grail, for six hours straight at a NYC art gallery. Like, for why? Is that even art? What is art? But like, obviously some folks ate that shit up. To me, it seemed like Jay-Z was bored, had time and was like, “Cool, I’ll be an art installation.” I believe, though, that Jay-Z has the self-awareness to know how ridiculous that is. I feel like that’s even how he felt working on the book Decoded, which was a breakdown of his lyrics. The breakdowns were longer than the lyric sheets, even though they said the same shit.
But a bag is a bag is a bag.
I don’t begrudge Yasiin Bey doing this. If he feels this is the next progression of his career, then rumble, young man, rumble. But I also feel like what’s the point of intentionally creating art that is significantly limited in its consumption? I doubt that when painters paint paintings they say, “I really hope 10 people see this. Then I will have made it.” You need tickets, time and a trip to NYC to see/hear/experience this album. I know all artists think that each project they’re putting out is the next one that will elevate music (maybe not all, I doubt Da Baby thought one bit about changing the game artistically, no shade) but doesn’t the public basically make that determination? Yasiin is one of the more talented products of hip-hop and if he never made another album, Black on Both Sides is more than enough.
But I also can’t help but feel like turning an album that longtime fans are waiting for (because longtime fans are always waiting for their favorite artists’ projects) that then requires most of us to spend a pretty penny to experience it is just some shit you do when you’re bored with music—and you create shit that might sound like it, too. So, you create an environment around it and then turn it into an art installation while trying to both expand your horizons and get that old thing back.
On Outkast’s soundtrack to the movie Idlewild they dropped the song “Mighty O,” which features Dre rapping about this very thing: “...Eat up whatever rapper but I’m tangled in my cord, Bored, kind of like a knight, with the sword, Without dragon to battle so I’m running from a shadow…”
It happens to the best of them. Be that as it may, I seriously doubt I’ll be heading to NYC to check out this here 28-minute sound experience. I’ve got several Law & Order: SVU marathons that I’m trying to get to the end of.
An impossible feat and I repeat. An impossible feat and I repeat. An impossible feat and I repeat.