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The Bronx may be the birthplace of hip-hop as we know it, but it can be argued that the heart and soul of the culture can be traced to Brooklyn, New York, which has been as integral to helping shape rap music as any borough, city or neighborhood. Notorious for being one of the roughest locales in New York City, the crime and poverty that ravaged the Brooklyn streets would be a source of inspiration for some of the greatest rappers of all-time, most Big Daddy Kane, The Notorious B.I.G. and JAY-Z, all of whom helped keep the crown in Brooklyn throughout their careers. Positioning themselves as bosses of the Brooklyn underworld through lyrics or imagery, the latter two of the three would help paint Brooklyn as a place where crack sales, shoot-outs and robberies were par for the course and a means to an end.
However, during the latter half of the 90s, an alternate view of life in Brooklyn was offered by Yaasin Bey (then known as Mos Def) and Talib Kweli, two natives of Medina who joined forces to delivery one of the more impactful albums of 1998.
Before they were household names, Mos Def and Talib Kweli were stalwarts in the New York City underground rap scenes, wowing audiences and peers with their lyrical exploits in Washington Square Park, a breeding ground for talented emcees and where the two initially met. The story goes that Kweli’s demo tape wound up in the hands of Mos Def, who was so impressed with Kweli’s music that he pointed him in the direction of Rawkus Records, a burgeoning indie label based out of NYC—headed by Brian Brater and Jarrett Myer—that Mos Def had recently inked a deal with. Upon meeting Brater and Myer and playing them his demo, Kweli’s initial plan was to have his first single on the label be a solo song to establish himself, but after the Rawkus heads caught wind of “Fortified Live,” a track from Kweli and producer Hi-Tek featuring Mos Def and Mr. Man of Da Bush Babees, they insisted on making it the rapper’s debut single on the label.
“Fortified Live,” which captured Mos Def and Talib Kweli’s seamless chemistry, became a big hit on the indie circuit, with the two Brooklyn natives building a bond and rapport from performing the song together at local open mic venues. With fans become familiar with seeing the two perform in a group setting, Rawkus attempted to take advantage of their buzz as a unit and ask that the pair push back their solo projects and record a collaborative album, under the name Black Star, which Mos Def and Talib Kweli agreed to.
Continuing to build their buzz together and separately on the Rawkus compilations Soundbombing and Lyricist Lounge Volume One, Mos Def and Talib Kweli were touted as two of Rawkus’ most prized artists heading into the recording of Black Star’s debut album, Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star, which arrived in early fall 1998. At the time of …Are Black Star‘s release, rap and hip-hop culture was as big as it’s ever been, but for some, the fruits reaped came at the expense of the purity and authenticity of the culture. Artists from New York City, particularly The Notorious B.I.G.. and Bad Boy Records, had helped popularize mafioso rap and the lavish lifestyle and debauchery that comes with being young, rich and famous.
Despite that brand of rap that was yielding The Notorious B.I.G. and others gold and platinum plaques and top billing hip-hop royalty, Mos Def and Talib Kweli’s music was the antithesis of the materialism, violence and misogyny that often came as collateral damage in the music that dominated the radio and record sales. Instead of peddling crack, Talib Kweli peddled literature at Nkiru Books in Brooklyn before signing with Rawkus, and while many rappers get into acting after having a rap career, Mos Def was actually a working thespian prior to releasing an album, making them relative model citizens when compared to their counterparts. Promoting knowledge of self, black pride and the tenants of the religion of the modern-day B-Boy, Black Star’s Brooklyn Bohemia was unlike what many rap fans had envisioned prior to their arrival on the scene, but their presence marked a gradual shift in hip-hop and R&B that would help usher in an era of “conscious rap,” as well as its sister sub-genre, neo-soul.
Released on September 29, 1998, Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star faced stiff competition, as it was pitted against blockbuster releases like JAY-Z’s Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life and OutKast’s Aquemini, both of which would enjoy bigger first week openings on Soundscan and the Billboard charts. However, among rap purists and major label anarchists, the album was perceived as the most important and coveted release of them all, and after pressing play on … Are Black Star, it’s not long before you understand the hype and reverence that surrounded it.
Following an introductory interlude, Mighty Mos and Talib draw listeners into their world with “Astronomy (8th Light),” the album’s opening salvo and a selection that sets the tone for the rest of the album’s 13 tracks. Produced by Da Beatminerz, “Astronomy (8th Light)” captures the two Brooklynites waxing poetic about their blackness, from their skin tone to all that encapsulates black beauty. “What is the Black Star? / Is it the cat with the black shades, the black car?” Mos Def ponders, before defining it as “commonplace and different / intimate and distant, fresher than an infant,” while Talib touches on the misconception of blacks, before later rhyming, “It don’t stop til we complete this, keep this fly / There’s so much to life when you just stay black and die.”
The sentiment is one that is woven throughout Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star‘s sonic fabric, however, the album does have its share of more lighthearted moments, the first of which comes in the form of the Hi-Tek produced “Definition,” which features a prominent sample of Boogie Down Production’s “The P Is Free” and an interpolation of “Stop The Violence” in a show of homage to KRS-One. Released as the first single from the album, “Definition” finds Mos and Talib in battle mode, as the two get loose and volley rapid-fire stanzas back and forth at one another on what would be the song’s biggest commercial hit. The pair continues this trend of paying their respects to their forefathers with Mos Def’s revamped version of Slick Rick’s “Children’s Story,” on which he takes mainstream rap stars to task for their lack of originality and fixation on fame and riches over adhering to cultural traditions. The retreads and nods to their forefathers may be endearing; however, Black Star are at their best when creating from scratch and setting the template as opposed to tracing it, which occurs on “Brown Skin Lady,” the lone female-friendly outing on the LP and one that finds the pair showing their affection and admiration for black women.
Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star is devoid of any cringe-worthy selections, but the latter half of the album proves to be the superior portion of the proceedings, beginning with “K.O.S. (Determination),” a jazzy cut on which Mos and Talib kick introspective couplets amid vocals from Vinia Mojica, over production by Hi-Tek. Lyrical acrobatics are executed on “Player Haters,” a frantic selection on which Talib does the heavy lifting, while Mos contributes a stanza and melodic crooning to help complete the cipher. But the album reaches a crescendo with “Respiration,” a sullen offering pairing Mos and Talib with Common, a like-minded emcee out of Chicago who had yet to break out on the mainstream at that point in his career.
Produced by Hi-Tek, “Respiration” includes verses from all three spitters giving their vantage point of life in the bustling New York and Chi-Town streets, each rife with vivid imagery and poignant observations of how the weight of survival can weigh on even the most stoic among us. The subdued vibes continue on “Theives In The Night,” a piano-laden number that finds both emcees speaking on the mental and spiritual bondage that has held blacks captive, dating back to slavery and the Jim Crow south with lyrics like: “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?,’” getting to the heart of the dichotomy between the privileged and impoverished and underprivileged in America.
In the wake of Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star‘s success, Rawkus Records became the torchbearer for hip-hop that was the antithesis of what was being produced by the major label system and a home to a host of the most influential subterranean rap acts of the late 90s and early aughts. The album would also position the pair as two of rap’s most promising emcees and create demand for their own individual projects, with Mos Def unleashing his solo debut Black on Both Sides in 1999—which yielded the hit single “Ms. Fat Booty” and was certified gold—while Talib Kweli and Hi-Tek released their own debut, Train of Thought, as Reflection Eternal a year later.
Both have since become regarded as two of the elite spitters of their generation of rap and carved their own respective niches and identities within the realm of hip-hop and beyond, and continue to contribute through the culture, whether musically or otherwise. However, despite not having released a project as a unit in over two decades, due to the classic that is Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star, each artist will forever be synonymous with one another and forever responsible for bringing Brooklyn’s bohemian side to the forefront and helping break the glass ceiling between socially conscious rap and the mainstream.
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