The Hip Hop Apostles Return: “Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star” is Back on Wax
by Mat Weir
Party people!! Beat Boys and B-Girls! It’s like 1-2-3, Mos Def & Talib Kweli. . .are back on glorious vinyl! If any part of that sentence made sense to you, then you’ KNOW I’m talking about the one, the only, HIP HOP IMMORTAL CLASSIC, Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star.
The year is 1998. The average income is $38,000, a gallon of gas was a whopping $1.15, Titanic was the coolest thing we had seen on the big screen (or at least the second-half. Yes, I’m aware I’m going to hell) and in a pre-911 world our biggest political concern was whether or not the President lied about getting a blowjob in his office (those were some crazy times, weren’t they?).
The hip hop world was still reeling from the death of Christopher Wallace, a.k.a. The Notorious B.I.G., a.k.a. Biggie Smalls, a.k.a. Big Poppa, in what was believed to be a revenge killing for the death of Tupac Shakur a year before and two previously unknown emcees dropped an album to critical acclaim. Both Mos and Talib were working on their debut albums independently but delayed their releases after a few performances together led to the idea of collaborating on something different.
Taking the name from the early-20th century independence movement leader Marcus Garvey (Black Star Line was the first shipping line owned by African-Americans in the U.S.), the Black Star album is pure poetry on wax. With beats by Hi-Tek & Shaun J. Period, and guest appearances by musicians like pianist Weldon Irvine—or Master Weldon for those in the know—the album is a tight-knit tapestry of self-determination, self-actualization, freedom, love, respect, strength and the beauty of the human condition, all set on a background of jazzy rim shots, thumping bass and in-the-pocket rhythm. With songs like “Brown Skin Lady,” a smooth, baby-making jam dedicated to females, you won’t hear women be called “bitches” on Black Star.
Lyrically, both emcees shine like the fresh, just-turned-legal-to-drink version of themselves that they are. They propagate Garvey’s “If you have no confidence in self, you are twice defeated in the race of life” idea with songs like “Determination” where Kweli raps:
Knowledge of self is like life after death
With that you never worry about your last breath
Death comes, that’s how I’m livin’, it’s the next days
The flesh goes underground, the book of life, flip the page
Yo they askin’ me how old, we livin’ the same age
I feel the rage of a million niggaz locked inside a cage
At exactly which point do you start to realize
That life without knowledge is, death in disguise?
Forget club jams and Waka Flocka Flame, true hip hop is all about how someone raps: what they say, how they say it, the flow of words mixed with the flow of music—it’s poetry set to a beat and an art that Kweli & Def had already mastered by 1998.
Take “Thieves in the Night,” inspired by Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eyes and dedicated to all “black authors in general”:
I find it distressing there’s no in-between
We either niggas or kings, we either bitches or queens
The deadly ritual seems immersed in the perverse
Full of short attention spans, short tempers, and short skirts
Long barrel automatics release in short burst
The length of black life is treated with short worth
Get yours first, them other niggas secondary
That type of illing that be filling up the cemetery
This life is temporary but the soul is eternal
Even the intro to the album recognizes the importance of Black Star, kicking off with the words, “We feel we have a responsibility to shine a light into the darkness” before leading into the opening track, “Astronomy.” The final version was done in one take and you can tell in the best of ways. Mos and Talib are both in full-form, spitting out lyrics including
Black like my baby girl’s stare
Black like the veil that the Muslimina wear
Black like the planet that they fear, why they scared?
Black like the slave ship that later brought us here
Black like the cheeks that are roadways for tears
that leave black faces well traveled with years
You can hear the joy in their voices. It’s not just a meeting of the minds or two artists in competition over the mic, it’s two friends having fun.
Finally, the most stand-out jam is (of course) “Definition.” With Hi-Tek behind the decks and a chorus of:
One, two, three, Mos Def and Talib Kweli
We came to rock it on to the tip-top
Best alliance in hip-hop, wayohh
I said, one, two, three,
It’s kind of dangerous to be an MC
They shot Tupac and Biggie
Too much violence in hip-hop, wayohh
It really is the ultimate hook and once you hear it, you carry it with you everywhere.
Black Star is art. Black Star is independence. Black Star is a lesson in life, history, humor and love. Black Star is jazz. Black Star is feminist. Black Star is equality. Black Star is remastered and back on vinyl (with a raaaaad star pattern pressed in) thanks to Rawkus Records.
RESPECT THE CLASSICS!