These were two scholars of not just hip-hop but the brutal world around them.
As the millennium turned, the holy trinity of socially conscious hip-hop was clearly in the hands of two men. In only two years, Mos Def and Talib Kweli released three albums that radically shifted the rap landscape. Train of Thought was Kweli teaming with master of slick Hi-Tek to focus his hardnosed political bars. Black on Both Sides (the Son in our metaphor, as Def eventually sacrificed himself for—a cameo on “House”?) was the type of debut album that made every established MC shudder in fear. Who is this guy and how is he this good? But how did this all start?
In 1998, Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star seemed like a polite “ahem” of introduction. Let’s not get it twisted, that year was stacked to the point of absurdity. Aquemini and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill were released only a month apart, which would have put ’98 in GOAT category even without Big Pun, Gang Starr and DJ Quik delivering career highlights. Black Star seemed lost in the deluge. It hit 53 on the Billboard chart, “Definition” briefly caught the third slot on the rap singles chart, but that was the biggest commercial splash the album created. At the time of release, the duo received polite, if occasionally backhanded, praise. Encyclopedia of Popular Music boss Colin Larkin said the album’s greatest strength was avoiding “the negativity of gangsta rap.” It was only after half a decade of Kweli and Def’s solo magnificence and a new wave of pastoral and political MCs bumping “Get By” that the critical world turned back to Black Star, realizing it wasn’t just a domino starting a Rube Goldberg machine, but a statement of intent as genius as what followed.
Unlike the other premier duo of the ‘90s, Def and Kweli didn’t have exact molds to fit. André 3000 was the manic pixie dream boy of rap, Big Boi was the triple-time gangster holding down the reality. Def and Kweli, meanwhile, flowed through different archetypes, fashioning their own brands. On first listen, Kweli seems like the serious, direct MC. He’s always had a need to show off just how clever he is. A scholar as much as a rapper, Kweli’s later albums could turn into a lecture hall. He was well-balanced here by Def, who came off like a joker. He, after all, would make a song called “Ms. Fat Booty” the next year (“Ass so fat you could see it from the front!”). While Kweli was ever on the edge of shouting, Def only raised his voice in a joyous holler. Def was the sweet to Kweli’s salt. Talib yelled “Stop actin’ like a bitch already, be a visionary,” while Def slurred “When the cock crows, my crop grows, enable me to rock flows/ Strivin’ for perfection ever since I was a snot-nose.”
And, yeah, we need to talk about this. Black Star is the rap equivalent to any Cannonball Adderley or Sonny Rollins album: catchy and smooth on the surface, but a deep dive reveals the sort of phenomenal technical performance that’ll make your tongue lock up and your lungs freeze at the sheer, towering prowess of it all. Def’s “Mathematics” would later become rap’s version of “Eruption,” though with infinitely more political smarts. But this is where the foundation was laid. Kweli’s machinegun fire on “Re: Definition” was aimed at phonies jacking his style: “You get kicked into obscurity like judo—no, Menudo/ Cause you pseudo, trying to compete with reality like Xerox/ Towards destruction you spiraling like hairlocks, wipe them teardrops.” It wasn’t just the speed, but the Möbius strip of internal rhymes. That’s not even mentioning the interweaving, Escher-esque lines in “K.O.S. (Determination)” with Def and Kweli passing the mic back and forth. “But you stressin’ over time and you follow the Roman calendar/ (These people into cloning like Gattaca)/ You can bet they tryin’ to lock you down like Attica/ (the African diaspora represents strength in numbers)/ A giant can’t slumber forever.”
So, Larkin was kind of right, but for the wrong reasons. Black Star is an occasionally ebullient album, but the optimism on display is hard-won, scrappy. The duo acknowledged a lineage of racism and hate shackling black Americans, while never falling into nihilism or floating into Utopian ideals. Instead, their tours through ghettos, blue-collar work and a mutating Brooklyn quietly hoped, not for a bloody revolution or an alternate reality, but an easier, more social life filled with art and equality. “Respiration” was their ode to the messy existence of Gotham, as pretty as it was poisonous. “Getting 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,” rapped Kweli before snarling at an unseen tourist “get you capped, like an NBA salary.”
The production ran the gamut from proto-bling beats (snappily used on “Hater Players”) to A Tribe Called Quest worthy jazz flows. Kweli and Def were never thrown by the sudden switches in tempo and vibe, making it all coalesce. The jitterbug bounce of “Definition” was pure sunshine, only to fade into the string laden melodrama of “Re: Definition” even flipping Def’s smiley hook into a ominous warning. Despite Def being tight with De La Soul, there were no skits, but Black Star had fun with their jaunts. “Brown Skin Lady” was, by turns, a raunchy and poetic ballad to the girls Def and Kweli were chasing. It read like a womanizer slipping in asking for nudes between silver-tongued sweet nothings. “B Boys Will B Boys” was a lark, a goofy pastiche of the hip-hop crews the duo grew up on. Black Star was steeped in its influences, casual references to Tupac and De La were only the first step. The duo’s reckonings with the history of hip-hop were wound in the very DNA of the record. Philosophical while also getting you to shake your booty. But Def and Kweli were mostly conjuring ghosts. Black Star barely has any guests. They knew that their charisma and knowledge was all the album needed.
“Thieves in the Night” tied it all together. It’s an exploration on the vicious themes provided by Toni Morrison’s book The Bluest Eye. Kweli is more subdued, but in volume only. He conjures the spirit of Louis Armstrong over a Mobb Deep-style beat made sorrowful rather than furious. Kweli and Def write out some dire equations. “Not strong, only aggressive cause the power ain’t directed/ That’s why we are subjected to the will of the oppressive/ Not free, we only licensed, not live, we just exciting/ Cause the captors own the masters to what we writing,” spits Def in his breathtaking verse. He scans the headlines and his own home, watching black people set against black people for the entertainment of a white America. There are certain stereotypes needed for a black man in the states, any arbitrations will be policed by both the government and his fellow African-Americans. “We well trained,” he sighs. The chorus lists the attributes a black person can never hold and the hollow facsimile given instead. “Not strong/ Only aggressive/ Not free/ We only licensed/ Not compassionate/ Only polite/ Not good but well-behaved/ Chasing after death/ So we can call ourselves brave.” Now 20 years on, there are still few rap songs as chilling and true as “Thieves in the Night.”
It was the most depressing moment on the album, but Kweli injected a bit of holy hope. “Raise my son, no vindication of manhood necessary.” And that was the miracle of Black Star. These were two scholars of not just hip-hop but the brutal world around them. And they still found beauty. “Life without knowledge is the same as death,” spits Kweli—a threat, yes, but more a plea for a transcendence through art, books, experience and mentorship. And with one album, they became the teachers for a generation of rappers looking for answers within and without.