[22 July 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Yasiin Bey, aka Mos Def, was only 10 years old when Marvin Gaye was killed. And whether Gaye’s spirit would have liked it or not, he’s now the unwitting participant of an Amerigo Gazaway project under the audacious heading of “Soul Mates”. The “Yasiin Gaye” line of releases are plentiful, including the two albums proper, The Departure (Side One) and The Return (Side Two), and numerous singles and corresponding remixes.
The covers of most of these releases depict Mos Def and Gaye as genuine pals. The soul legend sits there with Bey, chatting, not caring in the slightest that his material is getting the hell sampled out of it. This isn’t a shocker to Mos Def fans since his pool for samples tends to wander outside of any flavors of the month when it comes to hip-hop. But to have the gall to refer to them as “Soul Mates”? That seems a little out there. And that metaphor is not lost on Bey, who treats the excursion as a arduous flight. “Good evening ladies and gentlemen. This is your captain speaking. Well we, uh, screwed up up here” goes the spoken word portion of “Intro Theme (The Return)”. As Gaye’s gentle “Come Live With Me” plays in the background, the “captain” backpedals a little: “(It’s) nothing serious. We’ve got everything back under control now and it’s a no-sweat situation from here on.” Not the most auspicious way to start an album, but it doesn’t matter. Any doubts about Mos Def courting a sacred cow can be checked at the door for two encouraging reasons. First, it’s all free. Secondly, it’s all really good.
The samples continue to guide and simultaneously shape Mos Def’s creations rather than just sitting in the mixing board just to establish some cred with older folks. The source samples of Gaye can be heartening as when he banters with the audience about love and loss, and all that soulful stuff. They can be a little harrowing too, such as on “B Stands for Beef” when Bey rolls a recording of a news anchorman announcing that Gaye had been shot and was pronounced dead. And on “Anna’s Love Song”, Bey briefly walks the listener through the idea that, in “Anna’s Song” from Here, My Dear, Marvin Gaye’s softly ascending voice was a call out to his ex-wife, possibly trying to buy back the heartache they both endured. But it’s hard to make the case that Yasiin Gaye: The Return (Side Two) and its brethren projects are all about Marvin Gaye. “A Message to the People” and the aforementioned “B Stands for Beef” throws the net out to social unrest, looking at 21st century problems though a theoretical Gaye lens.
No one can say with certainty what the Motown-turned-protest-singer would have to say about the predicaments of “when a soldier ends his life with his own gun” or how we still “don’t know who shot Biggie”. But Mos Def and his audience can build theories as good anyone at this point. Like the fact that “Sex, Love & Money” was nothing to worry about, that the “Travellin’ Man” is lonely and just has to catch his flight and that, still, “There Is a Way” through it all. So could Yasiin Bey and Marvin Gaye be considered best friends forever, riding through the sky together, commiserating societal ills and celebrating the magic of their musical hybrid? All we can really say is that, of this music, Gaye would approve. Saying so does not feel like such a stretch.