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—by Rashad D. Grove
Today (October 3) marks the birthdays of two of hip-hop’s greatest MCs, Black Thought and Talib Kweli. For over 20 years, both rappers have been essential to the fabric of rap music with their prodigious lyrical exploits. Their longevity, in a game that often prides itself on the youthful appeal, speaks directly to the quality of their musical output. Both are highly regarded and renowned across the world for their robust discographies, live performances, political consciousness and social activism, and they have collaborated with on several tracks together.
Thought and Kweli come from the lyrical lineage of Rakim, Kool G. Rap, Big Daddy Kane, and KRS-One. Although a plethora of MCs deploy more melodic schemes and simplified lyrics on today’s rap scene, Thought and Kweli are standard bearers for the artistry of lyricism where intricate rhyme arrangements, double entendres, multifaceted lyricism and thought-provoking bars are still the ultimate personification of MCing.
Black Thought (born Tariq Trotter) began as a graffiti artist and then street performer before meeting drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson at the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts, and forming what would become the Grammy Award-winning band The Roots. (He dropped his long-awaited solo project, Streaming Thought, Vol. 1, a collaborative EP with 9th Wonder, this past summer.) Born to educators in Brooklyn, Talib’s early hip-hop influences were Afrocentric groups like De La Soul and Golden Era lyricists; he’d go on to become one-half of duos Black Star (with Mos Def) and Reflection Eternal (with DJ Hi-Tek), ultimately releasing 14 albums (thus far) to critical acclaim.
As we celebrate their birthdays, let’s look back at their five best verses each.
Black Thought | “The Next Movement,” Things Fall Apart (1999)
After years of touring and recording as the consummate working musicians, The Roots finally had a commercial break through with their classic Things Fall Apart. On the strength of the hit single “You Got Me” featuring by Erykah Badu and Eve, the album sold over one million copies. But it was Thought’s second verse on the second single, “The Next Movement,” that truly displayed his lyrical brilliance. Effortlessly gliding over an uptempo, jazzy production of the Roots’ live instrumentation, Thought exhibits the wordplay that we have now grown to expect.
Notable lyrics: “A lot of rappers never heard of this, or know half the time it is / You doubt the Illa-Fifth, what could you accomplish? / Whether they skywriting your name, or you anonymous / You be speechless, with stinging sinuses / The Roots royal highnesses through your monitors / I tilt my crown, then blow down a diamond kiss / You need to buy a CD and stop rewindin this / I’m the finalist, shinin like a rugged amethyst / And at your music conference, I’m the panelist / Listen close to my poetry, I examine this / like an analyst, to see if you can handle this.”
Talib Kweli | “The Blast,” Train of Thought (2000)
Talib Kweli doesn’t nearly enough credit for his versatility as an MC, but “The Blast,” from Reflection Eternal’s Train of Thought, captured the essence of his and DJ Hi-Tek and Kweli’s creative enterprise. Over Hi-Tek’s laidback groove, Kweli’s verbal dexterity skillfully rides this track.
Notable lyrics: “Yeah, you pronounce my name (Kweli), any questions? / I bring many blessings with / my man Hi-Tek and he from the Natti (Natti) / We make the sky crack, feel the fly track / Get your hands up like a hijack / Fist in the air for (Kweli), keep ’em there like Natural mystic or smoke when they spliffs lit / It’s a revolutionary (party), they ask me what I’m writin for / I’m writin to show you what we fightin for / Say Taleeb or Talib (Kweli), if it’s hard try spellin it phonetically / If not then just let it be like Nina Simone.”
Black Thought | “Super Lyrical,” Capital Punishment (1998)
As Big Pun began his ascent into superstardom, he enlisted some of rap music’s best for his Capital Punishment album, including his favorite MC: Black Thought. The title, “Super Lyrical,” is the perfect descriptor of this explosion. The competitive nature of the duel is felt, and this epic encounter of two tremendous MCs going back-to-back is one for the ages.
Notable lyrics: “These cats they sentimental such with a gentle touch / Dancin’ double dutch and all sayin’ nothin’ much / My sound wave liftin’ your chin up like uppercuts / New found ways of rippin’ shit up, I de-ve-lop / Your squad chest swell up, still you’re mini-ay-ture to me / Nature-ally I bring the extremity / Musically intense with the globe in suspense / Contemplatin’ where the world traveler been since / The Roots bless you with a strong record, long like a epic / Immerse you in some ‘ol next shit, ill poetic.”
Talib Kweli | “Guerilla Monsoon Rap,” Quality (2002)
Of all the collaborations Black Thought and Talib Kweli have created together, this is a standout gem. Kanye West created a haunting sonic landscape for the trio, including Pharoahe Monch, to give their lyrical offerings. Kweli spits like has something prove. And he did just that, proving with these bars that his reputation as an elite MC was well deserved.
Notable lyrics: “From natives walkin in trailor tears to players sippin Belvedere / We always comin well prepared, and all my dogs’ smellin fear / PLUS, even my niggaz from the Bede say you hella-scared / Truth or consequences, and all senses be well-aware / Your style – under-developed there, hell if I care / What hardship you claim to see, but I can tell by your stare / Nigga you fugazi, sayin ya crew blazin / like sayin Miss Cleo is a true Jamaican, we makin.”
Black Thought | “Thought @ Work,” Phrenology (2002)
The greatest influence upon Black Thought as an MC is the progenitor of the multi-syllabic rhyme patterns, Kool G. Rap. Rapping over the anthemic “Apache” breakbeat, Thought paid homage to his idol on this, his depiction of the G. Rap classic “Men at Work.”
Notable lyrics: “Tracks from Black for satisfaction / The role of captain played by Samuel L. Jackson / Yo ill insanity that’s cold and morbid but when I’m in your orbit you soul absorb it / A real raw nigga wont fold or forfeit / A thorough bred gonna enforce it / Tariq’s where the beats at / And where the people out their seats at / For what? Cause y’all on it / I’m like Aqua man and Brown Hornet / I’m like Imhotep but don’t flaunt it / Dog, reintroducing master thespian / Ho-telling-est, elin est, emceeing / Fuck getting money for real, get freedom.”
Talib Kweli | “Get By,” Quality (2002)
It seems like we were living in another universe when Kanye West was running with the “conscious” MCs. But the proof of that time in history is in this fantastic collaboration, which has become a signature song in Kweli’s cannon—so tremendous, in fact, it garnered a remix with verses from Brooklyn all-stars Busta Rhymes and JAY-Z. (Remember “If skills sold, truth be told, I’d probably be lyrically, Talib Kweli”?)
Notable lyrics: “Yo, our activism attackin the system / the Blacks and Latins in prison / Numbers of prison they victim black in the vision / Shit and all they got is rappin to listen to / I let them know we missin you, the love is unconditional / Even when the condition is critical, when the livin is miserable / Your position is pivotal, I ain’t bullshittin you / Now, why would I lie? Just to get by?”
Black Thought | “Web,” The Tipping Point (2004)
For three minutes and eighteen seconds, Thought exemplifies exactly why his place in the pantheon of transcendent MCs is etched in stone. Rapping over a funky yet minimalist breakbeat, Thought’s vocals serve as an instrument, annihilating both the track and any misconceptions about his incredible lyrical prowess.
Notable lyrics: “Bring money to spend and somebody to lend / And some worthwhile money not twenties and tens / Get took for your tuck right in front of your hens / Who coulda helped you, nigga? not none of ya friends / Because, I put a black fist under ya chin / Have your physical remains found under the pen / If I’m coming up in the place, I’m coming to win / Wasn’t in it for a minute, now I’m dumbin’ again ‘riq Geez / akh, y’all can chat what y’all please / Receive what I’m gonna get back to y’all believe / ‘cuz you don’t really wanna get clapped with all these / My man, you can take y’all strap when y’all leave / You see the squad come in the place, they all freeze / Ice Cold, with his mellow Cool Breeze / MCs never showed loyalty yet / Kool Herc ain’t never get a royalty check.”
Talib Kweli | “Definition,” Mos Def and Talib Kweli are Black Star (1998)
Black Star proved to be a force to be reckoned with on this lead single. Deploying a sample of Boogie Down Productions’ “Remix for P is Free,” Mos delivers his charm and charisma while Kweli boasts his steady, formidable lyrics. “Definition” was a coming out party for the dynamic duo as upper echelon MCs.
Notable lyrics: “You think you the shit / somebody in the wings’ll force you to quit / It could be your crew or click / Or some random kid you smoked Buddha with / Consider me the entity within the industry / Without a history of spittin’ the epitome, of stupidity / Livin’ my life, expressin’ my liberty, it gotta be done properly / My name is in the middle of E. Kwelity.”
Black Thought | “Freestyle #087,” Funk Flex Freestyles (2017)
When Funkmaster Flex invited Black Thought to spit a freestyle last year, as is customary, he had no idea of the historic moment that was about to take place. Thought delivered to the world a 10-minute, break-free, flawless freestyle that went viral and reintroduced himself to an audience that may have been sleeping on his lyrical wizardry for over 25 years. The quotables, similes, and metaphors were endless. It was a tour de force on lyricism and, without any hyperbole, Thought’s performance became one of the greatest freestyles of all time.
Notable lyrics: Maybe I am the new Rakim, maybe I am Fab, Pharaoh / Undergarments or armor be my intimate apparel / Pre-Kardashian Kanye, my rhyme play immaculate / Same cadence as D.O.C. pre-accident / Maybe, my accumen’s on par with Kool G rapping and / Give me the proper respect, mothaf*cka, we back again / For a couple things, we lost in the fire / The drive, the desire to perform on a higher plateau / I am at that show lost in a mire / Wondering how we got so far from inspired / Look, when photos were sepia-toned / And record players were something / You were keeping your home / Yo, the traveler, the meaning of Tariq was known / The exemplary performance, uniquely his own.”_
Talib Kweli | “Respiration,” Mos Def and Talib Kweli are Black Star (1998)
The trifecta of Mos Def, Talib Kweli, and Common superbly narrate, with melancholy, the rugged terrain of the inner city in their classic “Respiration,” a quintessential recording of the Rawkus era. While the three give virtuoso performances, Kweli, who raps second, spits one the most profound verses of his exceptional career, giving a splendid depiction of the harsh realities of city life.
Notable Lyrics: “We played against each other like puppets / swearin’ you got pull / When the only pull you got is the wool over your eyes / Gettin’ knowledge in jail like a blessing in disguise / Look in the skies for god, what you see besides the smog / Is broken dreams flying away on the wings of the obscene / Thoughts that people put in the air / Places where you could get murdered over a glare / But everything is fair/It’s a paradox we call reality / keepin’ it real will make you casualty of abnormal normality / Killers born naturally like, Mickey and Mallory / Not knowing the ways’ll get you capped like an NBA salary.”
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