Review: Mos Def at the Kennedy Center

Mos Def is one of hip-hop’s most preeminent artists, and quite frankly, one of the few artists from the genre that could command the stage at the world renowned Kennedy Center. Last Sunday, he took the stage, fronting a 22 piece orchestra in a new project called Amino Alkaline–The Watermelon Syndicate.

Let’s get the negatives out of the way first–the sound was terrible. I was actually surprised that a concert hall as illustrious as the Kennedy Center would have such bad acoustics. During the whole show, I thought that I was the only one who couldn’t hear a word that Mos was saying, but as I found out during conversation on the Metro with some concert goers after the whow, the general consensus was that the sound was bad–everywhere.

Secondly, the whole show had no focus. What was billed as a Mos Def tribute to jazz and hip-hop ended up being Mos running through songs in a random order with no real cohesion or center. The night consisted of Mos running through songs with some non-specific rambling in the middle–or maybe he did try to tie the songs together? I couldn’t hear him anyways.

The negatives, however, could not bring down what was an incredible performance. The band, fronted by keyboardist Robert Glasper, with horns by Marcus Strickland, and a string quartet of young women known as the NYC Woman’s String Ensemble, is one of the most diverse hip-hop outfits ever envisioned. Even if the playlist was as random as my iPod, it did not disappoint–Mos and his band went through a variety of songs, including Bel Biv Devoe’s “Poison,” Issac Hayes’s “Walk On By,” Chris Dave’s “Saturday Night Dance” and a new song–the Madlib produced “Auditorium,” from Mos Def’s upcoming album The Ecstatic.

Being that this was DC, the evening started off with Petey Green’s “How to eat a Watermelon” video, as well as a rendition of the go-go joint “Sardines” juxtaposed with the Star Spangled Banner. The latter track featured Mos simply repeated the lines “And the bombs bursting in air” over and over again in a fashion that played well to the audience–but would look like the ramblings of a mental patient if he wasn’t on stage.

The highlights of the night included Mos’s rendition of Lil Wayne’s “Dr. Carter”, with the all female string section delicately recreating Swizz Beatz sample of David Axelrod’s “Holy Thursday.” Mos’ cover of the infamous De La Soul track, “Stakes is High,” with a picture of Obama on the large video screen above the band, was another highlight of the night. Personally speaking, Obama’s picture got a louder applause from the audience than Mos himself, and the rapture was so loud, you would think that the future President was actually in the building.

The night ended with Mos finally getting around to “Umi Says,” a track that almost seems custom made for a big band rendition, but before he could even start, began to introduce the band and ran through the crowd like he was coming out of the tunnel at the Super Bowl.

The night officially ended with one of Mos’ band members doing a heavily talkboxed rendition of Radiohead’s “Weird Fishes,” which was dope, but I’m pretty sure everybody who was there was waiting for a Mos Def version of the track, which would’ve made for some good YouTube fodder.

Even with its flaws, the show was a success, and everybody that came Sunday got their money’s worth and more. Mos was the ambassador, bridging old with new, and accessible with left field. Even though there were some pit stops and detours along the way, the night at the Kennedy Center was a true win for hip-hop and hopefully a sign for more shows like this in the future.