It’s 2016, I’m listening to 52 albums in 52 weeks. For more info on what this is about, read this.
Why did I pick this album?
Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star (which I’ll be referring to as “Black Star” for now on) is well-known for two reasons. One, it’s well-regarded as one of the best rap albums of all-time. Two, it’s the first debut of well-known artist Mos Def. Last week Mos Def officially retired from music and movies. At the time he was in South Africa where he was trying to unwind after some turbulent times in the industry (which was also famously done by Dave Chappelle) however it didn’t seem to be working. In response to that announcement I wanted to listen to Mos Def’s most acclaimed album and heard Black Star and his single debut Black on Both Sides were the two to consider. I argued with myself if I should listen to Black on Both Sides or Black Star, and eventually settled on Black Star because reading the coverage on Mos Def’s announcement led many to recall Black Star as opposed to his single debut. Anecdotally, I saw a lot of posters on message boards cite Black Star as the album that “got them into Hip-Hop and Rap,” so this seemed like a good album to focus on, since I plan to feature many more rap albums later this year.
Who are Mos Def and Talib Kweli?
Both individuals entered the scene as unknowns when this album was released in September of 1998. They had planned to release separate solo LPs around the same time, but after meeting up and working together they decided to release an album together instead. Both artists came into the album hoping to bring a “conscious” approach to their lyrics, and many of the songs are about empowerment and topics that “typical rap” did not cover. This shared belief on what their music should be, along with their chemistry and comradery made them a natural pair for a duo album. Although the two never made another album together again, they made guest appearances on each other’s solo albums for the rest of each other’s careers. Mos Def went on to have a technically more successful career than Talib Kweli, but Mos Def’s career contains many highs and lows, including a multi-year period where he seemed kind of nuts.
What did I think?
In my travels of listening to hip-hop and rap, (a distinction, I’m still unsure of, because all my synapses would call this album “rap” but I’ve only seen it referred to as “hip-hop”) I’ve discovered a defining spectrum for the genre. Imagine there’s a line. On the far left side, you have high-production value, genre-blending music like Kendrick Lamar’s These Walls (or Kanye West’s Lost In The World or Tyler’s Find Your Wings, etc.) and on the far right side, you have stuff like Black Star’s Definition which is basically a beat and two dudes rapping over it. The distinction between this spectrum is whether the songs focus more on production or lyrical content. Definition is the extreme, but they obviously put a lot of work into their lyrics and they make sure that you can hear them, as opposed to production.
Which seems like a smart move since Black Star’s lyrics are easily the most stand-out part of the album. Many commenters have cited this album as the reason they got into Hip Hop and that’s likely because this is the only album that not only provides different content for listeners to chew on, but it actually openly criticizes contemporary rap. Remember this is 1998, just a year after Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac have been shot, and the genre is still mostly filled with artists copying that type of music. The most damning example is Mos Def’s track Children’s Story, which can be directly compared to Slick Rick’s Children’s Story, where Mos tells the story of a rapper who oversamples old songs and profiteers off of hyping conflicts between coasts which leads to real-world violence. These themes continue throughout the rest of the album.
Kweli has his own style of conscious lyricism with the track “Determination,” which largely asks listeners to be more mindful of important issues in the world. This is summarized in the line “At exactly which point do you start to realize, that life without knowledge is death in disguise?” The rest of the song speaks to the virtues of “knowledge of self” versus gaining cash quickly illegitimately since it will ultimately lead to incarceration, a major issue for Black Americans.
While I could go on and on about my admiration for Black Star’s dedication to worthwhile topics, I didn’t find the delivery of these themes to be very engaging. Most of the time I found myself struggling to pay attention and at worse felt like I was being lectured. Their movement to create and alternative type of rap to the glorification of “money and bitches,” is again, admirable, but they’re a little too on the nose with it. My experience with Kendrick Lamar’s work has shown me that it’s possible to bring up controversial and important issues without sounding like a classroom. I don’t believe Black Star achieves that balance on this album.
Unfortunately I think the album gives us two glimpses of what could’ve been, on the very first and very last track on the album. On the last track, Twice Inna Lifetime, Black Star shares the track with three guests: Jane Doe, Punchline, and Wordsworth, in a track that can best be described as a series of punchlines. The lyrics depart from the conscious self-importance found on the rest of the album, which may be why the duo had more material to work with. Kweli’s verse in particular is entirely made up of memorable lines, working with wordplay such as “We be lighting shit up like phosphorus, turning flamboyant niggas anonymous, depressing to optimist, you stopping us is preposterous, like an androgynous misogynist. You picking the wrong time, stepping to me when I’m in my prime like Optimus.”
Personally my favorite track, and what got me hopeful for the album as a whole was the first track of the album, Astronomy. This track is the only song that has Kweli and Mos rhyming back and forth working off of each other’s energy. The song has a prominent bass line, irregularly bumping along, and the MCs’ seem to bounce their flow off of the bass as the song goes on. As you’re focusing on the clever lyrics that focus around the question “What is the Black Star?” additional elements are introduced into the song like a vinyl scratcher or subtle keyboard ambiance, contributing to the “astronomy” title. By the time Mos and Kweli declare “you know who else is a Black Star, who? We.” You’re ready to hear the whole thing.
Unfortunately the Black Star doesn’t shine that bright. At least, for me. The remaining songs couldn’t hold a candle to the impressive first performance. I’d be interested to see how both artists’ careers developed in the future as the whole genre shifted toward more production-focused albums, but for me, this style of rap (or Hip Hop) just isn’t my taste.
For next week: Isn’t all that thinking exhausting? How about some brain dead pop music? Panic! At The Disco released a new album a few weeks ago called Death of a Bachelor. It’s most likely mediocre but that’s one of the few bands I actually follow so I want to listen to it. You can listen to it on Spotify. Here’s a head’s up: If/When Kanye West or Tool release an album later this year, I’m going to listen to those albums as well.