This is the fourth installment in a ten part series where I’ll be counting down my 10 favorite hip hop albums of all time in reverse order, from 10 to 1. I’ll be releasing one album per week, for 10 weeks. You can read Part I here , Part II here , and Part III here.
Alright, now we’re in the thick of it. This is where the decisions are getting tougher and tougher. If this were the NFL playoffs, we’re through wildcard weekend and we’ve eliminated the fringe teams that don’t belong. We’re on to divisional weekend with seven albums that are all capable of winning the Super Bowl.
Today we’re gonna take a trip back to 1998. Did I know about this album in 1998? Hell no. Not even close. I was more into albums like Big Willie Style, and my legitimate rap knowledge was just scratching the surface with tracks like “Hard Knock Life” and “Ghetto Superstar.” The names of these artists weren’t even on my radar for another six years. But once I found out who they were, they each held a special place in my heart as some of my favorite conscious rappers ever.
I can’t think of a way to introduce them better than they introduced themselves. So, take it away boys…
“1, 2, 3…Mos Def & Talib Kweli”
Number 7: Black Star – Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are: Black Star (1998)
It was a random weekday night during my junior year of high school. I was hanging at my good friend/neighbor’s house with our little pothead crew that loved to go on blunt rides and listen to Sublime. Fortunately on this night, my buddy who basically introduced me to good hip hop was in the car. He popped his iPod on (those used to be innovative devices that played music in a physical stored data space), and hit shuffle. I was in the very back of this van, in a weird space that had no seats. We were stuffing seven people into what should have been a four-person ride. Halfway through the cruise, when I was many tokes deep, a song came on that completely overtook me. I was locked in from the second the beat came in. I’ll always remember when the first chorus started and I, head bobbing like an absolute mother fucker, involuntarily let out a bellowing, “OHHHHH!” because it was just so goddamn good. The track was, “Definition,” and it set me off on a Black Star vision quest that I’m extremely thankful for.
Black Star is the only studio release from legendary rappers Mos Def and Talib Kweli as a duo. This was released just prior to their own individual debuts as solo artists. Since this album, both have gone on to become two of the most talented and well-respected artists and lyricists in hip hop history. But this is what started it all.
The album starts off with some scratches and spoken words over a darker piano line. I said in The Blueprint review that I’m a huge fan of great intro tracks. Well, although this one doesn’t have the juice that some of the others on this list do, I still love it. It segways perfectly into “Astronomy (8th Light),” which has a heavy, funky bass line and is loaded with afro-centric lyrics that use the word “black” in a number of clever and thought-provoking ways. This is where we first get to hear the two emcees riff with each other and trade lines (a-la the Beastie Boys). Mos Def’s opening to the final verse is exceptional (“Blacker than the night time sky in BedStuy in July / blacker than the seed in the black berry pie / blacker than the middle of my eye“). As a white guy, I’d be hard-pressed to come up with enough cool analogies to white objects to fill this many lines, nevermind a full track.
Then, we’re treated to one of hip hop’s great underground anthems. Like I said before, “Definition” is the song that put me on to Black Star. It’s bursting with energy. The heavy bass and fast moving beat, Mos Def’s hyped verses, Talib’s flow, and of course, that beautiful and catchy chorus. Mos Def’s singing is nothing short of perfect. It’s a chorus everyone can, and does, sing along to. It also has some of my favorite Talib lines ever, specifically in his last verse (“Consider me the entity within the industry without a history of spittin the epitome of stupidity / living my life expressing my liberties it got to be done properly / my name is in the middle of equality“). Lordy lord. Somebody call the fire department! It’s truly one of the greatest hip hop songs in existence. The track seamlessly transitions to the remix, appropriately titled “RE: Definition,” where the two emcees continue riffing over a slightly darker beat, and deliver their rhymes in a more braggadocios style than the previous track.
“Brown Skin Lady” is the duo’s tribute to their dark-skinned sisters that they find oh so beautiful. The chopped guitar sample is smooth like cocoa butter and works so nicely with the subject matter. It’s as if Marvin Gaye stuck around until the late 90s and made a hip hop song. Actually, you could say that about a lot of the tracks on this album. They all have this silky smooth, soul-sampled vibe to them that really struck a chord with me and helped shape my own personal taste in beats. “K.O.S” brings our first female vocal onto the album, with a sensual performance from Vinia Mojica. “Respiration” is another highlight, with an all-time sample job from Hi-Tek, who produced half the tracks on the album, and really created the sonic sound for this group. This track also has the first guest feature with a verse from Common. Three of the most conscious rapper’s together on a track for the first time. The track is followed by another beautifully-chopped piano sample from 88-Keys, and yet another catchy chorus from Mos Def on “Thieves in the Night.” It’s like the hip hop version of a cocktail lounge from old Hollywood.
I think “Hater Players” is the weakest track on the album. It’s the only track that’s just kind of there and doesn’t add or takeaway anything from the project. I also would have preferred if the closing track, “Twice Inna Lifetime,” was just Mos and Talib, but I understand they probably used it as an opportunity to put on a few of their friends who were trying to pop off. Having Common as the only guest feature would have been something special, like AZ on Illmatic. I didn’t mention the quirky, and dare I say, cute take on Slick Rick’s “Children’s Story.” It’s a nice nod to the Eye Patch and the only track without Talib. Also, the group’s ode to breakdancing on the upbeat “B Boys Will B Boys.” They really stripped everything down and went back to the roots of hip hop. Fun, energetic, graffiti, breakdancing, cyphers. All the characteristics that were getting lost in the shuffle of bling bling and expensive videos.
What separates this album from other hip hop projects is Mos Def’s singing capabilities. To have the combination of a world-class emcee with a world-class soul voice is something completely unique to him. He’s got a better singing voice than Andre3000 and Drake, while being just as good a rapper. I think the only artist that compares to his talents in both rapping and singing is the great Lauryn Hill. Also, Hi-Tek’s production fit their rhyme style and the context of their tracks perfectly. It influenced the overall sound of conscious rap as a subgenre moving forward.
Black Star came out at a time when hip hop was adjusting to life in the mainstream. The uphill battle was over. Hip Hop had officially made it. And the landscape was becoming saturated with sub-par emcees who were flashy and did anything to sell records. The actual mic skills weren’t as important anymore. What Mos Def and Talib Kweli did on this album was reject the record labels that wanted to turn rappers into a well-oiled machine of money making. They wanted to do things their way and put out music that meant something more than just smoking weed and popping bottles on speed boats. They showed that conscious rap had a place in the hip hop world. There was a mass of fans out there that cared about lyricism and emcees that perfected their craft. They showed that you didn’t have to rap about being a gangster. This album laid the groundwork for artists like J. Cole, Lupe Fiasco, Kendrick Lamar, Aesop Rock, and so many others. It’s an underground classic that I’d recommend to any new fan of hip hop that wants to dig into less surface-level stuff. Easily digestible, catchy, and meaningful.
And if anything, just please, please, please listen to “Definition.” That track alone is worth the price of admission.
PS – there’s an awesome remix album called “Yasiin Gaye” that mashes up Mos Def songs with Marvin Gaye instrumentals. Lot of tracks from the Black Star album on there. Highly recommend it.