The only rapper who's as likely to come to the Guthrie Theater for an acting role as he is a music gig, the artist formerly known as Mos Def arrived for the latter reason Monday. It was actually his second time at Minneapolis' thespian institution, too. With his Broadway-approved and Emmy Award-nominated acting credentials no doubt helping him get his foot in the door, Mr. Def became the Guthrie's first-ever non-local rap headliner in 2010.
But Monday's concert was the New York hip-hop star's first time in town working under a new moniker. He officially adopted Yasiin Bey as both his legal and stage name as of last year, leaving fans to wonder what else might be different about his act this time around. Not a lot, thankfully.
Bey, 38, dedicated the first half-hour of his set to his last Mos Def album, 2009's "The Ecstatic." Basking under red stage lights that matched the shade of the record's cover art -- the stage would stay red for the duration of the 75-minute set, too -- he offered up ecstatic dance moves to the funkiest of those tunes, including "Pretty Dancer" and "Casa Bey." He then masterfully slowed things down and amped up his sharp-tongued flow in the sarcastically titled, spiteful "Life in Marvelous Times."
The middle of the set was thick with new tracks, several of which came off as quizzically peculiar as his name change. He introduced one of the newbies by admitting he'd be "going dumb" in it.
"But my dumb is so dumb, it's ingenious," he cracked. (The song's hook, "I'm always horny," didn't exactly support his claim.)
Just when he stretched the show to its weirdest, though, Bey brought it back rubber-band-style with one of his most straight-ahead older favorites, "Hip-Hop," from his 1999 solo debut. The slow-simmering peace mantra "Umi Says" followed, with a few dozen fans invited on stage -- much to the dismay of the visibly aghast Guthrie staffers -- to help sing the chorus, "Shine your light on the world." Now that was ingenious music.
While Bey had all the charisma and drama befitting the Guthrie's Wurtele Thrust Stage, the theater's tinny sound system was not up to par for his two-DJ sonic output. Luckily, the acoustics couldn't hide the main attraction: Bey's MC-ing talent. He's one rapper who sounds as impressive performing a cappella -- which he did several times Monday -- as he does in full boom, so the acoustics were just a small hitch. There's no way to act your way through those kinds of skills.
Local rapper Toki Wright, who has long been a thought-provoking MC of the Mos Def ilk, opened the show carrying his own new identity. He's still Toki, but instead of just rapping, he's a bona-fide bandleader now. With an all-star lineup including pop-funk star Mayda Miller on bass, Black Blondie's Tasha Baron on keys and veteran jazz drummer Kevin Washington, Wright pushed his new group through an innovative blend of reggae, dub and electronic styles that eschewed the usual live-band mold in hip-hop.
Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658 • Twitter: @ChrisRstrib