On August 26th, 1998, Mos Def and Talib Kweli came together as Black Star and released one of the most significant albums in hip-hop’s history.
Six years later, as a seventh-grader hearing the album for the first time on a bootleg CD played through my bedroom DVD player, it changed my life.
Prior to hearing Mos and Kweli, my rap tastes consisted of whatever I heard on the radio or saw on BET or MuchMusic: basically, G-Unit, Ludacris, Nelly, Ja Rule, and Lil Jon. (Here’s a fun activity: look at the Billboard charts from 2001-03 for a reminder of the musical climate.) Suddenly, I was opened to a world of groovy basslines, gritty drums, and quick-witted lyrical mastery. Not only that, but there was substance. I never turned back.
I may have caught on late, but I share a similar story with many emcees and producers in hip-hop today. Ask just about anyone, and they’ll list Black Star amongst their favourites.
“That was the album that changed all of my lyrical content,” says Junia-T.
“When you’re a young artist, and you’re just rapping, following what you hear, you don’t really understand the reality of the environments these people are describing, you know what I mean? Until you hear an album like Black Star, it really made me realize that yeah, I can rap about my regular life and still have something to say.”
“The mid-nineties was when I got into deejaying, and this was kind of at the same time that Rawkus was really big,” Freddie Joachim says. “This was when Mos Def and Kweli, Common, and The Roots were really blowing up. That’s the type of music that I gravitated towards.”
“I heard that in a time when I had already kinda been on Nas, and Common, and Jay – all the staples – but that came at a point where I was kind of searching for something new, because I had played those albums to death,” says Omen.
“It was just so refreshing to hear; it was just unique; Mos had his own style, Talib had his own style, and I was at a time in my life where I was searching for truth, and tryin to figure out the world, and I felt like they had the answers – even if they didn’t, it felt like that.”
Allow me to take a walk down memory lane and revisit the album, track-by-track.
1. “Astronomy (8th Light)”
The album opener is crucial: it’s the scene-setter for everything that’s yet to come. “Astronomy” takes two emcees and introduces them into the world as confident, socially-aware, and overall, just plain different.
As RapReviews writes, the album is “a refreshing change from ‘I’m-hardcore-so-won’t-you-be-my-whore?’ and ‘me- an’-my-b–ch-rollin’-in-my-Lex-poppin’-krystal-smokin’-my-blunts-with-money- all-around’ rhymes that seem to saturate the radio airwaves, the music stores, the Billboard charts, and the mentalities of too many young and impressionable people in society.”
Mos and Kweli tackle the theme of blackness from the start, and it reappears often throughout the album.
DAMN, this song is fresh. When it comes to hip-hop, it would be hard to think of a better definition than, well, “Definition.” Mos and Kweli are at their bar-trading best. (Who has better chemistry than these two?) Also, Hi-Tek crafts one of the catchiest beats known to mankind.
“From the first to the last of it/ Delivery is passionate/ The whole and not the half of it/ Vocals and not the math of it/ Projectile that them blasted with/ Accurate assassin shit/ Me and Kweli close like Bethlehem and Nazareth.” – Mos Def
“My presence felt, my name is Kweli from the Eternal Reflection/ People thinkin’ MC is shorthand for misconception/ Let me meditate, set it straight/ Came to the conclusion that most of these cats is featherweight/ Let me demonstrate…” – Talib Kweli
Talib’s opening verse on this song may be one of the best examples of his lyrical dexterity. I mean, just look at these bars alone:
“We die hard like the battery/ Thrown in the back of me by the mad emcee/ who thinks imitation is the highest form of flattery/ Actually, don’t be mad at me/ I had to be the one to break it to you/ You’ve been kicked into obscurity like judo – no, Menudo/ ‘Cause you’re pseudo, tryin’ to compete with reality like Xerox/ Towards destruction, you’re spirallin’ like hairlocks, wipe them teardrops/ Chasin’ stars in your eyes, playin’ games with your lies/ Now your wives is widows, soakin’ up pillows, weepin’ like willows/ Still though, blacks is dyin’/ Kids ain’t livin’, they tryin’/ How to Make a Slave by Willie Lynch is still appylin’.” – Talib Kweli
What’s most impressive is that despite Talib’s standout verse, I actually think Mos’s verse is even more memorable. It’s like when Jay Z hopped on the remix to Kendrick’s “BDKMV,” shattering minds in the process, only to have the listeners’ minds re-assembled and then doubly shattered when Kendrick delivers the final verse. Lyrical one-upmanship at its finest.
4. “Children’s Story”
The first time I ever tried to write a rhyme – as I imagine all lovers of hip-hop do at one point or another – I set about re-imagining this song, just as Mos did with Slick Rick’s classic. As producer Marco Polo once told The Come Up Show, “[Mos Def’s] a very eclectic dude. You never know what the hell’s gonna go on with that dude. He’s like a mad scientist genius-type of dude.” It’s incredible what Mos was able to do with the structure of Slick Rick’s version, preserving the bones of it and flipping it to create his own narrative about a sample-jacking emcee.
The best story about this song is that one time, shortly after the death of Notorious B.I.G., Mos performed this song at the Wetlands club and Diddy took exception, thinking the song was about him.
“Diddy came through and he came and wanted to talk to me and Mos about [how] he felt a way about the record, about what Mos was sayin’ onstage,” Talib told MTV in 2013. “Mos told him, ’It wasn’t directed at you personally. It’s directed at everything that’s going on in the business.’”
5. “Brown Skin Lady”
The best music takes you back to a specific time and place. Much of this album does the same to me: I listened to it so often during high school, I remember when each song would start playing during my walk to school. By the time “Brown Skin Lady” came on, I’d be walking down Belmont Ave. approaching Union St. Years later, when I came across Black Star’s remix of Mary J. Blige’s “Beautiful,” it brought me right back to that moment.
6. “B Boys Will B Boys”
Phonte has a theory that all classic albums have at least one skippable track. If we’re being honest, “B Boys Will B Boys” fits the bill. (Interestingly, Tigallo thinks it’s “Children’s Story.”) In that case, we’ll skip the review.
7. “K.O.S. (Determination)”
“K.O.S.” lives on as one of the album’s deepest, most re-playable tracks. The beat is so simple – really, besides the drums, there’s not too much going on – and the way Kweli rides it is so tight. Mos had his spotlight on “Children’s Story,” and when Talib’s turn comes on “K.O.S.,” he squeezes every ounce out of his solo opportunity. When Jay Z said that if skills sold, truth be told, he’d probably be lyrically Talib Kweli, this is what he’s talking about.
Junia-T nails it on the head:
“I was really big on being the emcee’s emcee and having bars, you know? And I realized that having bars was just having something real to say. That mattered to me, and that’s what that album did to me. One of the main songs on the album that really opened my eyes was “K.O.S. (Determination).” That song’s [got] bars for days, and they’re not even two-line setups. They’re just one line, straightforward knowledge. They resonated with me, and that’s who I am now.” – Junia-T
8. “Hater Players”
“Bear witness/ I’m like shot clocks, interstate cops, and blood clots/ My point is, your flow gets stopped.” – Talib Kweli
Allow me to nominate this couplet for the “greatest use of similes ever” category. Aside from that, the track features a decent verse by Mos and another excellent Kweli verse, including this gem:
9. “Yo Yeah”
As ConcreteMag615 writes, “Hip-hop was becoming more single-minded in ‘98, making way for solo acts with albums chocked full of potential radio jams. The merger of the mighty Mos Def and Talib Kweli put the focus back on making a quality album with social and creative resonance from top to bottom.”
As far as interludes go, this one is among my favourites. It’s a catchy refrain, for one thing. It’s musical, for another – those bells are lullaby-like. It also contains multiple thought-stirrers:
“Black is…/ Black is something to laugh about/ Black is something to cry about/ Black is serious/ Black is a feeling/ Black is us, the beautiful people.” – Unnamed girl
“3:30 in the morning with not a soul in sight/ We sat four deep at a traffic light/ Talking about how dumb and brainwashed some of our brothers and sisters are/ While we waited for a green light to tell us when to go.” – Unnamed man
The latter quote has stuck with me over the years, even more now that I often find myself biking to work at 3:30 in the morning, without a soul in sight, debating whether to obey the traffic lights on my way. It’s a moment of irony that makes you laugh, and then think deeper. Isn’t that the essence of art?
10. “Respiration” feat. Common
Everything about this track is dope. I love the nod to Style Wars in the song’s opening. I love the Spanish scene-setter: “Escuchela… la ciudad respirando.” I love the way the drums don’t kick in until partway through Mos’s verse. I love the track’s refrain: “I can feel this city breathin’/ Chest heavin against the flesh of the evenin’.”
“We played against each other like puppets/ Swearin’ you got pull, when the only pull you got is the wool over your eyes/ Gettin’ knowledge in jail like a blessing in disguise/ Look in the skies for God, what you see besides the smog/ Is broken dreams flying away on the wings of the obscene/ Thoughts that people put in the air/ Places where you could get murdered over a glare/ But everything is fair/ It’s a paradox we call reality/ So keepin it real will make you casualty of abnormal normality/ Killers Born Naturally like Mickey and Mallory/ Not knowing the ways’ll get you capped like an NBA salary.” – Talib Kweli
It all coalesces to create one of the album’s better moments, including a stellar guest verse from Common – perhaps the best verse on the whole song. I’d break it down, but Common’s already done so himself. Check it out.
11. “Thieves in the Night”
“I think a lot of people go through periods of their life in music where you’re searching for something and you feel like these artists are speaking exactly what you feel. I remember specifically hearing “Thieves in the Night,” Mos Def’s verse on that was just so amazing to me – Kweli’s verse is dope too, but Mos’s verse was one of my favourite verses ever. It was speaking so much truth that I was just listening to it like, this guy’s so deep. I just remember that was an amazing time.” – Omen
Damn, if that isn’t the truth. When Omen said that to me, I knew exactly what he was feeling. Let’s start with Kweli’s verse.
“Give me the fortune, keep the fame,” said my man Louis/ I agreed, know what he mean because we live the truest lie/ I asked him why we follow the law of The Bluest Eye/ He looked at me, he thought about it, was like, “I’m clueless, why?”/ The question was rhetorical, the answer is horrible/ Our morals are out of place and got our lives full of sorrow/ And so tomorrow coming later than usual/ Waiting on someone to pity us/ While we finding beauty in the hideous.” – Talib Kweli
He’s rapping about a novel by Toni Morrison, which tells the story of a girl named Pecola Breedlove, who develops an inferiority complex because of the colour of her eyes and skin. It’s deep and touching – gut-wrenching, really. It’s one of Talib’s best verses on the entire album – maybe even the best of the bunch. On to Mos Def…
That alone would make most verses contenders for the greatest verse of all-time. What’s crazy is that it’s not even the best half of the verse. What comes next is a Sixth Sense/The Usual Suspects moment where everything suddenly clicks into place. Mos takes the song’s refrain and expands on it, leading to one of the album’s prime goosebumps-inducing moments (emphasis added):
“Not strong, only aggressive cause the power ain’t directed/ That’s why we are subjected to the will of the oppressive/ Not free, we only licensed, not live, we just exciting/ Cause the captors own the masters to what we writing/ Not compassionate, only polite, we well trained/ Our sincerity’s rehearsed in stage, it’s just a game/ Not good, but well behaved ’cause the cameras survey/ Most of the things that we think, do or say/ We chasing after death just to call ourselves brave/ But everyday, next man meet with the grave/ I give a damn if any fan recall my legacy/ I’m trying to live life in the sight of God’s memory like that y’all.” – Mos Def
Those last two bars… Wow. Can we agree this is the best verse on the album? It’s my frontrunner, in any case.
12. “Twice Inna Lifetime”
This track stands out for a couple reasons.
First, as a reminder that women can spit. It had been proven many times before, and it’s been proven many times since then, but it’s worth pointing out once again. Jane Doe has bars, and not once does she mention anything about her appearance or sex appeal. She demands to be treated as an emcee, and merits such.
Second, Kweli’s “intellectual masturbation with premature ejaculation” line is one for the ages. It’s not his most clever line, and not his most poignant line, but it sticks in your head.
Third, “Twice Inna Lifetime” feels more like a bonus track to me. I’ll always feel like “Thieves in the Night” is the album’s logical conclusion.