Black Star: We Break Down Mos Def and Talib Kweli's Brilliance

Hip-hop's history might be strewn with many more notable groups than duos, but time and time again, a couple of guys are able to come together and blow everyone to smithereens. So many great twofers have existed in rap: Eric B. & Rakim, Outkast, Blackalicious, Atmosphere, and Gang Starr.

Black Star: We Break Down Mos Def and Talib Kweli's Brilliance

In 1998, Mos Def and Talib Kweli joined this eminent club by collaborating under the moniker of Black Star for the simply titled Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star. Sure, this union might not have had the star power of that Jay-Z/Kanye record from earlier this year (say, whatever came of that?), but creatively, the collaboration paid off very well. In Black Star's wake, Def and Kweli have sporadically re-teamed for about a dozen other projects. On Thursday night, the two MCs play Club Nokia in Los Angeles with Orgone (Black Star were supposed to hit House of Blues in Anaheim on Nov. 3, but "unforeseen circumstances" sunk that show and others on the same tour), so let's devote a moment to revisiting what made this debut such a gem.
Its thoughtful righteousness
Def and Kweli pointedly aim for their rhymes to exude substance and intelligence, and in the record's introductory track ("Intro," natch), they make reference to themselves as "real-life documentarians." Even if the duo can occasionally be too self-aware for their own good (in this branch of hip-hop, humility is more effective than bravado), they make up for any faults by sincerely devoting themselves to generating good analysis. Their greatest insight comes in the form of "Astronomy (8th Light)," a track that comments on how we use "black" in language. More often than not, black is to white as evil is to good, but Def and Kweli make it a point to counter this idea with positive similes:

Black like my baby girl's stare/Black like the veil that the Muslimina wear
Black like the planet that they fear (Why they scared?)/Black like the slave ship that later brought us here
Black like the cheeks that are roadways for tears/That leave black faces well-traveled with years

While the track's call-and-response chorus has the over-earnestness of little kids giving themselves gold stars (Mos: "You know who else is a Black Star?" Talib: "Who?" Mos: "Me," and then vice-versa with Kweli leading), the song itself is so reasonable and smart that it makes you want to re-evaluate how you speak.
Its context
Black Star came out in 1998 -- one year after The Notorious B.I.G.'s death and two after Tupac Shakur's. It's difficult to imagine the ramifications of what losing two titans of hip-hop would feel like in 2011; just visualize the horror and chaos that would occur if Eminem and Kanye West somehow dropped off within a year of one other. In light of the circumstances of their times, Black Star made their record a call to peace, working in opposition to all the violence that ran -- and still runs -- amok in the rap game. 

In the album's irrepressible, exquisite hook of "Definition," Def sing-songily raps, "I said one, two, three/It's kind of dangerous to be an MC/They shot Tupac and Biggie/Too much violence in hip-hop," solidifying the record's crux. Non-coincidentally, that rhyme is a nod to a very similar verse in KRS-One's "Stop the Violence." Black Star is sprinkled with other timely allusions and tales, such as "Children's Story," which takes the gist of Slick Rick's "Children's Story" and uses it to discuss how overzealous producers, record labels, and radio stations have the power to turn goose shit into gold. Black Star's ability to capture details of their times allowed them to make good on that "documentarian" brag.

Its versatility

Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star and Wu-Tang Clan's Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) are both classic debuts released in the '90s that have little in common. One is a two-piece collaboration that calls for peace, the other a nine-piece collab that features multiple examples of MCs waving guns around. However, these two landmarks do share a taste for variety.

Black Star is loaded with songs that sound deftly unlike one another: There's the funky, upbeat "Definition" (which immediately leads into "Re:Definition," its sterner, moodier counterpart), the busy party track "B Boys Will B Boys," the airy elevator-music-gone-right interlude of "Yo Yeah," and the doe-eyed, soulful "Brown Skin Lady." You know you've got a good record when an artist can strike different tones without any of them feeling contrived.
Its rapping
After all, this is what it's all about, right? Although Def and Kweli both stem from the same school of smart hip-hop, each has a flow with its own tone. Def keeps his rhymes moving at a pace he's comfortable with, slowing up and speeding down as tempos demand it. Meanwhile, the young and hungry Kweli breathlessly labors to get his ideas out there while you're paying attention, squeezing as many syllables into a sentence as possible. 

The record is sprinkled with all kinds of killer lines, including come-ons ("Make love to you like long interview"), twisty boasts ("Consider me the entity within/The industry without a history/Of spitting the epitome of stupidity"), worldly references ("Me and Kweli close like Bethlehem and Nazareth"), and shards of wisdom ("Life is more than what your hands can grasp"). Black Star don't rely on the instrumentals to do the heavy lifting; after all, this was a showcase for two fine rappers psyched to take on a new project.

With all this said, good news is on the horizon. In an interview last month, Kweli said that a second Black Star record will probably come out next year. Mayan Apocalypse be damned, 2012 can't come fast enough.

Black Star perform with Orgone at Club Nokia in L.A. Thurs., 8 p.m. $38.75-$50 in advance, $44-$55 at the door. All ages.


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