Yasiin Bey, who goes by the moniker Mos Def, and his colleague Talib Kweli are without a doubt a two-man movement, a force to be reckoned with from the streets of Brooklyn, New York. Mos and Talib met in the mid-90’s at Washington Square Park which was like a Mecca for freestyling and battling emcees at the time. The eventual collaboration from these two artists who were born only a few years apart seemed destined to be, as their paths had also crossed at local spoken word events. In 1997, they even ended up working at the same place, a local joint named Nkiru Books, Brooklyn’s first black bookstore (which they decided to purchase and run together a year after their first joint project dropped). Both artists held that job down while working on the now-classic, self-defining studio album known simply as Black Star.
Once the two gained respect for each others’ emcee skills, they locked down a distribution deal with Rawkus Records in NYC, a label formed in 1995 with releases in genres ranging from hip-hop to drum & bass, and fun-dustrial. This young, American label is now known for jump-starting the careers of many artist like Kool G Rap, Big L, Q-Tip, Common, and even early Eminem.
Black Star is a professional project that captures the capability of these conscious, always stylized, spoken-word, sonnet-sounding legitimate rappers. The lyrics found on this album exceed the level of knowledge and context I’ve come to expect from an ordinary rapper. These guys deliver and collabed with experienced and passionate producers like Hi-Teck, J. Rawls, and 88-Keys on the project. Def and Kweli, with the help of their producers, convey a proper sounding, mind opening project that flows, educates, and gets us all moving at the same time. As audiences awaken to this record, we’re reminded of the good and bad. A few of the topics this piece of art might be controversial, but that’s all a matter of opinion and stance, and to my knowledge music is meant to challenge us anyway, so I’m happy about it.
The Intro lays it all out. Recorded at Funky Slice studios in Brooklyn, NY we are welcomed into the album with a sample from a 1976 artist, The Cannonball Adderley Quintet, and a strong, strategic statement sounds out:
We feel that we have a responsibility to… shine the light… into the darkness.
…issued to blatantly prepare us for what we’re about to hear from these two, tight documentarians. Second up on the record, we get a taste of Astronomy (8th Light), and our duo jumps right into a clear in depth explanation of Black Star that rolls straight to track 3, the up-tempo, shaking hip-hop gem, Definition. Mos & Talib continue to prove how comfortable they are reciting meaningful mouth-fulls on the microphone packed with knowledge as the Black Star shines on. “Definition” pours right into Re: Definition with production that’s sonically thematic. Just a few noticeable tweaks and underground rawness change it brilliantly. Once Mos arrives, he cannot be stopped and proceeds to share slick lyrics about Bed Stuy, the community he was raised in.
Personally, I believe this next track, Mos’ own version of Slick Rick’ song Children’s Story, is one of a kind. He totally flips the script and the whole essence of the original, ‘89 track is simultaneously embodied and surpassed. Def displays his storytelling abilities and gives us a clever and honest tale about a rising artist:
There lived a little boy who was misled
By a little Sha-tan and this is what he said
Me and you kid we gonna make some cash
Jacking old beats and making the dash…
Before you can blink we’re moving along to pay respect to each and every Brown Skin Lady, and the album takes a slower pace for a second. This smooth, wavy, and euphoric beat put together by J. Rawls makes me want to do a light 2-step or bump down the avenue with my wonderful woman. This jazz inspired, soulful jam has Talib and Mos’s rightfully admiring all ladies and their beauty – this is a mellisonant jam.
Yo yo, yo, whassup, yo yo
Yo yo, we gonna, we gonna slow it down
So we can speed it up y’all
Right now I want everybody come to the front
That’s right, move forward
B Boys Will B Boys is a fly hit that’s meant to get the audience active once more. The bad brothas spit with haste and instruct us to move our bodies. And just like that, half of the relentless Black Star has passed.
Streaming into our next track, we’re given a reminder of how much power we possess on the most serious and genuine verses yet. K.O.S. (Determination) (an acronyms for Knowledge of Self) is a thought provoking track Kweli uses as a platform for his feelings on quick cash schemes and unaware individuals who have been misled to undermine their own power. K.O.S. is the only way to a happier tomorrow according to this head-nodder.
Rather than spoil every track, I’ll move to the last interlude Yo Yeah, an interesting educational piece produce by Talib & J. Rawls. “Yo Yeah” samples “Kali” off Black Poets in America from 1972. This piece really ties in with the Black Star concept, reflecting on a time when black and white people were explicitly segregated while still speaking about society today and how segregation lives in our streets. After a short minute, Thieves in the Night begins and begins to wrap this gift that is Black Star. I’ll let their lyrics speak on their own:
This life is temporary but the soul is eternal
Separate the real from the lie, let me learn you
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 rehearsed in stage, it’s just a game
Without a doubt, the last track is a taste of what it must have been like to hear Mos Def and Talib Kweli at that first park freestyling. Twice Inna Lifetime seals the deal tastefully in a cypher featuring fellow artists Jane Doe, Punchline, and Wordsworth. Black Star a classic aimed at reinstating confidence and giving strength to black individuals and dreamers of all backgrounds. We all stand under the Star’s light and are gifted by its indestructible wordplay and poetic embodiment of the hip-hop scene.