Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star
Rawkus Records, 1998
The intro to Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star is incredibly intriguing. From the very get-go you can tell this record is going to be punctual. The Cannonball Adderley sample preaches the wide-spreading words of Music You All over creeping throngs of piano, strings and a bass-driven boom-bap rhythm, and the scratching and MC intros paint a very quick picture of how intellectual this record is going to be.
Early cuts such as “Astronomy (8th Light)” and “Definition” properly begin the album with preaching verses of truthfulness and sincerity over tight and flawless percussion. “Deep on the front lines, and blacks is all there,” Talib Kweli slings. “Black like the perception of who, on welfare.”
On “Definition”, Mos Def goes the energetic route:
“I said Manhattan keep on making it, Brooklyn keep on taking it/ So relax we’re taking it back, Red Hook where we’re living at/ Plenty cats be struggling not hustling and bubbling/ It ain’t about production and — what else we discussing?”
In these instances, Mos Def and Talib Kweli drop masterful bars of precision while at the same time showcasing how their two styles play so well together.
Past the mechanics of this record however stands the true genius: the content. “B Boys Will B Boys” is a statement, as it glorifies the true hip-hop philosophy over a worldly stage of instruments; it’s diverse in all ways musically and conceptually. “For the b boys and b girls universally,” Mos Def shouts, “Rock Steady Japan, Rock Steady Europe, Rock Steady New York, yo we just gonna keep it live. All over the world — get live y’all!”
The smooth moving “Thieves in the Night” attacks stereotypes and oppression while reinstating the message to be proud in who you are. “I find it’s distressing, there’s never no in-between/ We either niggas or Kings, we either bitches or Queens.” By the end of the song, Mos and Kweli take their voices to the very end of the cut, and it’s this stretching statement that shows the Black Star message.
“Respiration” brings in Common, and all three MC’s shine over a beautiful hook (“So much on my mind that I can’t recline/ Blastin holes in the night til she bled sunshine/ Breathe in, inhale vapors from bright stars that shine/ Breathe out, weed smoke retrace the skyline”). “RE:DEFinition” covers expansive ground regarding content, but manages to get every message out clearly (“Son I’m way past the minimum, entering millennium/ My raps will hold a gat to your back like Palestinians/ Ancient Abyssinia, sure to hold the Gideon/ Official b-boy gentlemen, long term, never the interim”). “Children’s Story” closely relates to Slick Rick’s song of the same name, and here Mos Def attacks the music industry. “JANE the chickenhead radio host,” he spits, “Who be yappin’ ’bout beef between east and west coast/ He said ‘This one’s a bullet, you got ta give it run!’/ The chicken said ‘Thanks.’ and spanked it #1.”
Black Star attacks so much while remaining calm and precise. This characteristic runs throughout the record, and successfully keeps it at a heavenly medium. Mos Def and Talib Kweli are on a spiritual level lyrically, and their biting tone are disguised in smooth moving flow. The beats are alluring and reinstate the lyrical melodies, and guest producers like Hi-Tek and 88-Keys completely meld their work to fit Mos and Kweli’s signature rhythm. What stands then is a work of art, showcasing how much ground one the best hip-hop record’s can truly cover.
With regard to hip-hop music, there is so much that can be said about each MC, their style, rhymes, flow and stage presence. Additionally, each producer has their own unique approach to making beats and what they try and get out of their samples and loops. With this in mind, when hip-hop artists on the same wave-length come together, the possibilities are truly endless. This can be heard throughout the 1998 classic, Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star, as Mos and Kweli effortlessly dip and dodge around each other, perfectly complementing each other with their revelations on life in the city, violence, materialism, self-determination and beauty.
The chemistry between the two is electric from the onset as together, they ponder multiple definitions of blackness on “Astronomy (8th Light)” which continues to the last track, “Twice Inna Lifetime,” where they go in on a posse cut with help from Jane Doe, Wordsworth and Punchline. While albums such as Dead Prez’s Let’s Get Free or Revolutionary Vol. 2 by Immortal Technique are amazing because of their in your face style, Mos Def and Talib Kweli are as revolutionary and call for decolonization in a much subtler manner. If you’re not listening intently for the duration of the album you will miss something important, guaranteed.
Within Black Star there are calls for a stop to violence and gun culture in the city on “Definition” where together, they deliver the famous chorus,
“One, two, three/ Mos Def and Talib Kweli/ We came to rock it on to the tip-top/ Best alliance in hip-hop, Y-O/ One, two, three/ It’s kind of dangerous to be an MC/ They shot Tupac and Biggie/ Too much violence in hip-hop, Y-O”
In this case, they are discussing their hometown of New York City. However, it could easily be interpreted and applied to other places experiencing violence, then and now. Mos and Kweli also describe other aspects of the city and life in general on “Respiration,” featuring Common. On “Children’s Story,” a remade version of the Slick Rick classic, Mos is heard telling two youngsters about the emphasis on Materialism within the rap game:
“He was out chasin cream and the American dream/ Tryin’ to pretend the ends justify the means/ This ain’t funny so don’t you dare laugh/ It’s just what comes to pass when you sell your ass/ Life is more than what your hands can grasp”
This theme is taken even more in depth with “Thieves In The Night” and directly challenges stereotypes and conforming to a particular image. In this case, they are questioning Euro-American ways of being and providing an alternate way of living for those oppressed by institutional racism. As Kweli states over the reflective, jazz infused production of 88-Keys:
“Caught up in conversations of our personal worth/ Brought up, through endangered species status on the planet earth/ Survival tactics means, busting gats to prove you hard/ Your firearms are too short to box with God/ Without faith, all of that is illusionary/ Raise my son, no vindication of manhood necessary”
This idea of resistance and presenting a different way of viewing the world shines through on the ever-smooth track, “Brown Skin Lady.” The song starts with a sample from the film, Chameleon Street, where two characters discuss how they have been conditioned through years of oppression to see things in a certain way. As the track continues, Mos and Kweli present an alternate way of thinking about beauty as they praise black and brown women. This is of utmost importance as it directly defies common images of thin, blonde-haired white women as the standard of beauty. Instead, Mos and Kweli are saying, “No, be proud of who you are and what you look like, you’re beautiful!”
The ideas embedded within this record are relevant today as Mos and Kweli’s lyrics teach, inspire and empower. An example of this is on the track, “K.O.S. (Determination),” as they encourage people to be confident in who you are and what you’re about. This is such a strong, and important message for people of marginalized communities to hear as it provides a rallying point for people to resist and work towards a better reality.
As Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star moves from start to finish, it feels as though you’re engaged in a deep, perspective changing conversation while atop a Brooklyn apartment building. At first, it is dusk and the sun is setting quickly, casting long shadows across the skyscrapers of Manhattan. By the end of the record, it is night and the air is frigid. The chill of the night can be felt in your bones and you can see your breath as you breathe in, and breathe out. You can see the magnificence of the city by looking downtown but there is also the pain and hardship that you can see right below you. At that moment, there is a lot to reflect on. If you’ve heard this record before, listen again. If you haven’t heard it before, listen to it. By the time the album has finished, you will see why this is one of the best hip-hop records of all time.
“Thieves in the Night”
“Brown Skin Lady”