I had always heard good things about the Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star album but was only familiar with the singles Definition & Separation (through their music videos) before listening to the album in its entirety. Black Star’s focal point is thorough knowledge of self – currently and throughout history – that revolves around themes of self-love, originality and unity. Each track reveals an arc in the story of the Black perspective.
We feel that we have a responsibility to… shine the light… into the darkness.
Self-Love & Black Love
Astronomy (8th light) sets the first arc in motion and celebrates Blackness by redefining how it is seen in society. The song’s lyrics preach self-love & Black love; Talib and Mos go back and forth affirming identity and provoking thoughts:
Black is the color of my true love’s hair
– Talib Kweli
Blacker than my granddaddy armchair
He never really got no time to chill there
Cause this life is warfare, warfare
– Mos Def
Later in the album, the duo return to this theme and celebrate women enriched with melanin in Brown Skin Lady. This song’s message and affirmation stand in contrast to society’s historic preference of European features. Hip-Hop is often seen as being misogynistic, so it is nice to have a track that provides a counter narrative:
Coppertone owe you copyright infringement, pay
You been this tan since way back in the day
– Talib Kweli
I appreciate that in the outro of the song, Talib gives a shout out to Afro-Latina women and other countries who are of the African Diaspora.
Reverse psychology got em scared to say when shit is whack
Out of fear of being called a hater, imagine that!
– Talib, Hater Players
Success in the music industry is usually judged by how well someone does on the Billboard charts; critical acclaim of an album is usually just an afterthought in the eye of the consumer. Black Star challenges such notions of success from beginning to end. Most explicitly, Children’s Story serves as a cautionary tale of aiming for commercial and crossover success. Lyrically styled after Slick Rick’s version, Mos Def tells the story of a producer who samples soul music for commercial appeal:
They jacked the beats, money came with ease
But son, he couldn’t stop, it’s like he had a disease
He jacked another and another, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder
Set some R & B over the track for “Deep Cover”
Even though the music is considered “wack”, the producer achieves success in the pop world. A&R record labels encourage the greed-minded producer to continue to making beats in the same way:
The shiny A & R said “Great new hit, G!”
Whenever you need a loop, yo come get me…
This story speaks truth directly to the industry. While money floods into music for radio and streaming platform curated playlists, other artists struggle outside of the mainstream and run their own marketing on social media, hoping for traction. Artists end up making music just to get by, and appease America’s ear instead of speaking their honest truth, growing their listeners through new knowledge, and leaving a legacy. And if message of “Children’s Story” enough to set the track apart, Shawn J. Period’s amazing production is completely original – no jacked beats! The only samples on the track are in Mos Def’s lyrics.
Production & Aftermath
The album’s multiple producers create soulful grooves that make you feel like you’re moving right along with the MCs. Thieves in the Knight, produced by 88-Keys, set me directly in the streets of NYC during dusk. Despite a wide cast of producers, Hi-Tek’s touch on six of the thirteen tracks is the strongest influence. Talib Kweli connected with Hi-Tek previously on another song, Mood’s ‘97 release Hustle On the Side, and their partnership is clear on tracks like K.O.S. (Determination):
At exactly which point do you start to realize
That (life without knowledge is death in disguise?)
– Talib Kweli
Black Star impacts its listeners and is both a history lesson and a map/starting point for self-discovery. Throughout its 50-minute run, aspects of Hip-Hop history are touched on. Jazz musicians Miles Davis & John Coltrane (inspiration for many hip hop producers and MCs) are mentioned in a few songs and the track B-Boys will B Boys pays direct homage to the roots of Hip-Hop and celebrates its Golden Age.
The year after its debut, Mos Def released his first solo album, Black on Both Sides. Talib Kweli and Hi-Tek came together again in 2000 as Reflection Eternal, and released Train of Thought, Kweli’s second album. In 2009, they reunited on Mos Def’s song History. Def and Kweli have yet to make another collaborative album as Black Star. As of 2018 though, both MCs have stated the odds are in favor of a second album.