Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Album Review: "Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star" - Black Star (1998)


If the title of this album didn't already give it away, Black Star is a duo comprised of Mos Def and Talib Kweli, two of the most well-respected rappers by hip-hop heads everywhere. They released their debut album, Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star (which, from here on out, I will merely be referring to as Black Star), to critical acclaim in '98. However, since then, the group has gone into seclusion. Sure, Mos Def and Kweli have released solo stuff, but they have yet to collaborate on another album since (and that might have a lot to do with the fact that Mos Def has gotten lazy and has decided to pursue a career in acting).

The strange 12-year hiatus aside, Black Star immediately became one of the most renowned groups in rap history for their outstanding debut, as the project contained marvelous conscious rapping from both members and scintillating production from beatmakers like Hi-Tek, Da Beatminerz, and 88-Keys.

Black Star is a relatively short piece of work consisting of 13 tracks, with only 10 of them being actual songs. Because of that, the album is short, sweet, and the point. When a project contains only 10 records, its chances for missteps obviously plummet, and I'm guessing Mos Def and Talib knew this.


1. Astronomy (8th Light)

When I first heard this song, I immediately though Hi-Tek produced it, but it turns out it was made by Da Beatminerz. Yes; the same Da Beatminerz known for their grimy, hard-hitting production with Boot Camp Clik. While focused listening will reveal that "Astronomy (8th Light)" does contain a Da Beatminerz sound, this certainly doesn't sound like something Heltah Skeltah would rap over; that's for sure. Instead, it suits Black Star perfectly, making for what is one of the best cuts on the album (and that's saying a lot). The content of the song is basically an homage to the color black, and Mos Def and Talib Kweli tie that into the name of their group, Black Star.

2. Definition
This was Black Star's first single, a Hi-Tek produced banger that fits Mos Def and Kweli like a glove. You wouldn't think Talib is the kind of rapper who could spit nice punchlines, but he does that here:
"Expressin' my liberty, it gotta be done properly, my name is in the middle of e-Kweli-ty." Just to clarify for those of you who may not really know how to pronounce Talib Kweli's name, "e-Kweli-ty" rhymes with "equality."

3. RE: DEFinition
Well, what Black Star lacks in creativity in song-naming they make up for in pure rapping ability. Hi-Tek crafts another sick beat (I don't care what anyone says; I think he is the best producer of all-time) for the duo, and both of them kill it. Songs like these make me long for the days when Mos Def actually rapped rather than mumble over everything.

4. Children's Story
Now if someone told me that Da Beatminerz produced this, I wouldn't be too surprised, but "Children's Story" was done by Shawn J. Period. Unfortunately, this sounds more like a cheap Da Beatminerz knockoff rather than something that actually matches their brilliant production, and because of that, this track is pretty boring, not to mention the fact that Talib isn't even on it.

5. Brown Skin Lady
J. Rawls is on the boards here, and he lays down a ridiculously smooth beat for Mos Def and Kweli to spit over. As per the title, they both rhyme about their girls on this record, but they do it extremely eloquently, and they actually don't mention sex once throughout the entire cut (and it's a long one). Well done, Black Star.

6. K.O.S. (Determination)
Is it even possible for Hi-Tek to drop a whack beat? I mean, seriously. "K.O.S. (Determination)" possesses probably the chillest production imaginable, with a hypnotizing sample and sleep-inducing drums that Talib Kweli (Mos Def does not appear on this cut) and female guest artist Vinia Mojica croon over without the slightest bit of discomfort. Due to the fact that I have always considered Talib to be the stronger emcee of the duo, I was pretty happy to see him get a chance to shine solo on this track. If you're wondering, "K.O.S." is an acronym for "Knowledge Of Self," a phrase that Kweli alludes to numerous times throughout this fantastic cut.

7. Hater Players
Shawn J. Period gets another chance after producing the essential snorefest that was "Children's Story," laying out a fast-paced number for Black Star here. I love these few lines from Talib:
"I'm like shot clocks, interstate cops, and blood clots, my point is, your flow can stop, by all means, you need more practice, take that ass home, everybody lookin' at you, fish tank syndrome."

8. Respiration
Now for the best track on the album. Hi-Tek's beat is masterful, and Mos Def, Talib Kweli, and Common (who makes a guest appearance) rip it to pieces. The hook on this is also incredible. It's easy to see why "Respiration" was chosen to be Black Star's second single. It is probably the quickest six-plus minute song you will ever have the pleasure of hearing. It's so remarkably good that it just doesn't feel that lengthy at all.

9. Thieves In The Night
88-Keys drops the beat for Black Star this time, and Mos Def raps a line that essentially encompasses the theme of the entire album: "This life is temporary, but the soul is eternal." Great, relaxing song.

10. Twice Inna Lifetime
There are a couple of problems with this song. First of all, on an album where, up until now, there were no guest rappers other than Common, throwing in three nobodies (Jane Doe, Punchline, and Wordsworth; exactly) on the final song is not good form and just throws everything out of rhythm. Second of all, this track is way too long for its own good (five minutes and thirty-nine seconds), and that kind of thing will happen when you feature that many guests on a cut. For once, Hi-Tek's beat isn't much to write home about, but that opinion might be jaded by the fact that the song is just so long. Maybe if it were shorter, I would appreciate the production a bit more. This isn't a very good way to finish the album, but the rest of it is so great that "Twice Inna Lifetime" doesn't leave anything more than a minute scratch in Black Star's status.


I don't think there's an argument that can be made against Black Star being a classic album; it just is. The production is spectacular, and Mos Def and Talib Kweli demonstrate that they are two of the most articulate and intelligent rappers in the game.

The sequencing of Black Star is genius, as all of the songs fit together perfectly and the album flows seamlessly because of it. Both Mos Def and Talib possess outstanding flow and delivery (I like Talib's a bit better, though), not to mention distinct voices that make the listening experience that much more enjoyable. Also, as lyricists, these guys are among the cream of the crop; they're incredible.

It really is a shame that Black Star has not put out any releases since its nearly flawless debut. The two rappers have collaborated on a few songs here and there to at least light a flame in the ears of fans trying to relive Black Star's glory days, but that obviously doesn't come close to matching the hype that a full-length album would generate. There have been rumors of a Black Star reunion, but, as of this moment, they are nothing more than that; rumors.

Maybe if Mos Def wasn't so concerned with his acting career (or if Kweli simply slapped some sense into him), Black Star would be more inclined to get together and attempt to create another masterpiece. Then again, perhaps Black Star has already set the bar so high with its debut that anything it put outs as a group from this point on will be looked at as piffle, as the group will always be held to a ridiculously high standard.

All things considered, maybe it's a good thing that Black Star has only dropped one album...but we'll never know that for sure unless they try again, right?


1. Respiration
2. Astronomy (8th Light)
3. K.O.S. (Determination)
4. Thieves In The Night
5. RE: DEFinition


I didn't particularly like "Children's Story" or "Twice Inna Lifetime," but that doesn't mean you won't, so go ahead and just listen to the whole album.

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