Admittedly, I came late to Black Star. When I first heard the name Black Star, I assumed someone had accidentally merged the names Big Star and Big Black. (Note to Danger Mouse or Girl Talk: Mr. Big Black Star—a mash-up of Mr. Big, Big Star, Big Black and Black Star—would be epic.) But when I finally heard their self-titled album, I knew instantly why there was such a hubbub about the Mos Def/Talib Kweli collaboration.
Black Star is a charged album, both lyrically and socially. And though there are songs that deride empty materialism, comment on society falling short of its aspirations, and present a remedy for that malaise of self-defeat, Mos Def and Kweli groove and flow without preachiness. Black Star is not a socially aware record first and an enjoyable album second or vice versa; it’s an enjoyable socially aware album. Period. Full stop.
Each part of the duo has his own knack for crafting intelligent lyrics. At times, Mos Def’s delivery adds a percussive precision to his stream of word plays and sound plays. On “Definition,” Mos Def’s introductory spiel is chock full these brilliant internal rhymes and soft rhymes (“Yo, from the first to the last of it, delivery is passionate / The whole and not the half of it, vocab and not the math of it / Projectile that them blasted with, accurate assassin shit / Me and Kweli close like, Bethlehem and Nazareth“). Kweli is more prone to overfull flows and overt allusions. He can deftly mention Menudo, Spawn (yeah, seriously, Spawn), or Vicky from the show Small Wonder before he takes a quick breath and tethers his flow back to the beat. One of my favorite bits of his actually appears on the closer (and the only comparatively weak offering on the album) “Twice Inna Lifetime”: “Me and Hi-Tek, we live long and prosper like Vulcans.”
Even though their lyrical stylings are distinct, their shared sensibilities merge their two styles into a heavy-hitting whole. One of the best examples of their seamless collaboration is “Thieves in the Night.” Built around an allusion to a paragraph in Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye, Kweli and Mos Def muse on how people fall short of living well, inevitably succumbing to degraded ideals and mental slavery. Cribbing from the book, they trade the lines “Not strong / Only aggressive / Not free / We only licensed / Not compassionate, only polite / Now who the nicest? / Not good but well behaved / Chasing after death so we call ourselves brave?”
Yet the album declares from the start that Black Star intends to shine a light into the darkness. So while “Thieves in the Night” is the bleakest track on Black Star, there’s also plenty of light. Mos Def and Kweli present a positive definition and appreciation of blackness on “Astronomy (8th Light).” The back and forth between the duo is dynamic, with Mos Def and Kweli trading lines and completing each other’s lyrics like they were psychics. On “K. O. S. (Determination),” a solo Kweli stresses knowledge of self and self-determination as a way to overcome the darkness in the world.
The positivity continues on “Brown Skin Lady,” a come-hither ode to the lovely brown-skinned ladies of the world. Yet “Brown Skin Lady” is done respectfully, without any of the prurience or not-so-subtle misogyny of bitch-and-ho songs. And on the note of Slick Rick, a solo Mos Def riffs on “Children’s Story,” complete with falsetto kid voices and a moral to the story (“Life is more than what your hands can grasp“).
It’s been about ten years since Black Star was released. It’s been hailed as a masterpiece, and rightfully so, and it’s one of the great, influential hip-hop albums released right around the turn of the century. And yet, I wonder if and when the follow up will ever show. Kweli has mentioned there would be another Black Star album, but with Mos Def’s film work and Kweli’s own music projects, it seems like another collaboration may be a ways off. And sure, maybe the second album may not live up to the hype in my head, and sure, you can’t trap lightning (let alone starlight) in a bottle twice; but there’s a fire in my eyes and the flames need fanning, and is Black Star knows how to do something right, it’s to shine and to burn bright.
A Tribe Called Quest – The Low End Theory
Common – Like Water for Chocolate
The Roots – Things Fall Apart