Picks: One-Two-Three, its Mos Def at the Guthrie-ee-ee

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August 16, 2010
By: Gregory J. Scott
Gregory J. Scott

// The rapper/actor/activist/clothing designer chooses a theater stage for his Minneapolis appearance //


UPDATE: Dessa of Doomtree has just been announced as the opener for this show.  


Where were you the first time you heard Mos Def drone, “Lawwwwwwwwwwwd, have mercy”?

The rapper’s ringing kick-start to the addictively excellent 1998 track “Definition” — which Def recorded with Talib Kweli as part of the duo’s iconic Black Star collaboration — is like a call to prayer for certain progressive-minded hip-hop enthusiasts. In the four minutes it takes for the rest of the song to unfold, an entire decade of violent, hideously negative gangsta rap is erased. “Definition” was released in the aftermath of the deaths of 2Pac and the Notorious B.I.G. And with its laments over the ghastly turn rap culture had taken, the track became an anthem of conscious hip-hop, an advertisement for rap’s ability to speak eloquence to social ills. Today, 12 years later, it still is.

When Mos Def plays the Guthrie Theater — he’ll perform on the intimate and immersive Wurtele Thrust Stage on August 23 — he’ll try to summon some of his activist heroics.

Or maybe he won’t.

In the last decade, Def’s reputation has been on a slippery slope. He’s become better known for his acting than for his rapping, appearing — often times to great acclaim — in major films like “Monster’s Ball,” “Be Kind Rewind” and “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” and in Broadway productions. So much Hollywood face-time has prompted some observers to accuse him of getting watered-down. He has released four solo albums since the Black Star days. But responses have been mixed, ranging from Grammy nominations for solid work to head-scratching over wonky stylistic experiments. His latest album, though, last year’s “The Ecstatic,” has been hailed as a return to form.

And while Mos Def has kept a foot in social justice issues — he was loudly critical of the Bush Administration, of the handling of the Hurricane Katrina disaster and of the response to the Jena Six trial — he’s also openly courted commercial opportunities. He appeared in a television ad for an SUV in 2006. And last year, he launched a clothing line and designed shoes for Converse.

So which Mos Def will we see in August? The spotlight-craving showman, still working out his fame issues from his days as a teen actor and a student at a Manhattan performing arts high school? The political rebel, son of a father who is a former Nation of Islam member? Or the b-boy lyricist, rhyming with a carefully studied technique?

With any luck, it will be a bit of all three.

Mon., Aug. 23
7:30 p.m.
Wurtele Thrust Stage at the Guthrie Theater
$46 - $48