Late last year an album called December 99th was released to poor reviews and little fanfare. The dismal record, by a duo operating under the same name, was all the more disconcerting considering it was alluded to be the final release from the artist Yasiin Bey, previously known as Mos Def, a Brooklyn rapper and actor and one of hip-hop’s most celebrated and somewhat enigmatic figures.
But let’s take it back a bit. The Mighty Mos Def (I’ll stick to calling him Mos for this) was definitely a force for hip-hop in the late ’90s and early 2000s. Getting started with his younger brother and sister in the rap group Urban Thermo Dynamics in the mid ’90s, Mos’s rep grew when he linked up with the Native Tongues collective, landing the opportunity to work with De La Soul and Q-Tip, but it was his partnership with fellow Brooklynite Talib Kweli as Black Star, which propelled him into the limelight. Their 1998 album, Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star, is a classic, and was just what hip-hop needed in the late ’90s: An elemental, socially-conscious record which celebrated hip-hop culture and Blackness and stood out in contrast to the money, success, and bling-oriented rap albums of the day. The album was critically acclaimed and massively influential, and Mos and Talib became the talk of the hip-hop world, Mos especially for his eccentric style and inspired performances. A lot of people were waiting to see what would come next from them.
Mos was the first up to bat with 1999’s Black On Both Sides, his solo debut, which is still a masterful listen nearly two decades on. I remember coming across this record back on release in ’99 thanks to the use of one of its most iconic listens, “Umi Says,” being used in a Nike commercial. When I started really messin’ with hip-hop in my teens this album was one I championed early, initially off the hype and respect it garnered, but over the years my appreciation for it deepened, as the tracks started to resonate with me and take on new meanings as I got older. It’s thoughtful and composed, yet spontaneous, and quite smart. Mos is an engaging emcee, with a penchant for storytelling and deep musings, and on this record he shines.
Now, “Habitat,” like the aforementioned “Umi Says” is a song I’ve had on repeat for nearly two decades now. On it, Mos shouts out his home of Brooklyn and talks about his upbringing on the gritty streets of the borough. He channels the nostalgia, good and bad, of his hood, and mentions that while everyone has a place they call home, they’ve still got to think about where they’re at now in life. The beat is lighthearted and heartfelt, which matches his tales well, and it’s something about this listen which gives you the warm and fuzzies inside. Hence, tonight’s post.
Since Black on Both Sides, Mos’s career has had its ups and downs, the dude expanding into acting but also dropping some intriguing (and maddeningly inconsistent) records over the years. In 2011 he changed his name to Yasiin Bey, choosing to retire his previous name and history, and became a bit more reclusive and disillusioned with the music, even heading to Africa for a few years before being forced to return to the U.S. due to immigration issues. In 2016, Yasiin announced he would be retiring from the music and film industry with a final project, December 99th, created with the producer Ferrari Sheppard, a muted end to a fascinating and storied career.