Hip-hop is among the most popular creations of African-American culture, as globally arresting as a shout in the street. But to outwit cultural appropriation, its creators also filled it with secret code, with ciphers. Acclaimed rapper and actor Mos Def embodies that contradiction vividly. After releasing sophisticated, minimalist, deeply race-conscious music that sparked the 1990s hip-hop underground - a scene that eventually became overwhelmingly white - he withdrew into more difficult music even as he gained fame for his TV and movie roles.
His show Friday night at the Wilbur promised little resolution of the conundrum. Mos Def’s appearance came almost 2 1/2 years after his last album, and immediately after an aborted tour with Black Star, the duo that made him famous (his partner, Talib Kweli, played Boston on Wednesday with Idle Warship, a new project). And it arrived late. Almost 90 minutes after the last opening act, the crowd was audibly irked waiting for the headliner.
But the crowd also looked impressively broad, with more than 1,000 slightly older, fashionably attired fans, perhaps a quarter of them black. And when Mos Def finally appeared on the bare stage gripping an old-style microphone, he instantly lived up to the title of that demanding yet extraordinary last album, “The Ecstatic.’’
“I’m feeling good about this,’’ Mos Def beamed after the cool, horn-drenched groove of his opening number, “Cream of the Planet.’’ A 2010 track released by producer Ski Beatz, this semi-obscure yet winning selection signaled the mix to come. Dressed like some door-to-door evangelist in a sport coat, short-sleeved shirt, and red tie, Mos Def paced and danced and exhorted the crowd as two DJs spun on a large dais raised higher than a pulpit. Songs seemed to disappear only to return in sudden codas; a stretch of impressive new numbers came with a cappella primers; and the crowd rapped along with every echoing, slightly slurred word on favorites ranging from 1999’s “Umi Says’’ to 2009’s “Casa Bey.’’ After a mesmerizing if slightly exhausting 90 minutes, Mos Def just pulled the plug on the microphone with a smile, as if cutting a Gordian knot.
Two Boston acts proved worthy openers. Moe Pope was reminiscent of underground pioneer Q-Tip in his electronic phase. And funk quintet Bad Rabbits hit grooves as fun as their coordinated dance moves and gravity-defying leaps.
Franklin Soults can be reached at email@example.com.