Sunday, February 18, 2007

An Open Letter to Today’s Hip-Hop Fans: Part 5

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

Ok, so we’ve gone New York to Phil to Atlanta to the West Coast and now we’re back to New York. So here it is, the best album that represents the best there is about REAL hip-hop - Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star. What’s great about this album? Well, everything. You’ve got two MCs that sounds like they’ve been partners for years, great production, and above all else, relevant messages.

Mos Def lets you know from the intro that he and Talib Kweli have a responsibility to “shine the light into the darkness.” They don’t disappoint. The first song, “Astronomy (8th Light)” pulls a Malcolm X on us, flipping the work “black” and using it in positive terms. You don’t hear any crap lyrics from these guys; instead you get lyrical wordplay like this:

[Talib Kweli] I love rockin’ tracks like John Coltrane love Naima
[Mos Def] Like the student love the teacher
[TK] Like the prophet love Khadijah
[MD] Like I love my baby features
[Both] Like the creator love all creatures

[Talib Kweli] Who acknowledge truth and peace seekers
We on point like heat seekers
Targettin the black marketing strategists
Run up on em with the heaters
Everybody followin with no leaders
Feelin like we killin ourselves
because I know they can't defeat us

“Definition” starts out with a reggae flow, letting us know why Black Star has arrived (while throwing in another message):

One two three
Mos Def and Talib Kweli
We came to rock it on to the tip-top
Best alliance in hip-hop, wyahhhhh
I said one two three
It's kind of dangerous to be a MC
They shot Tupac and Biggie
Too much violence in hip-hop, wyahhhhh

The next standout track is Mos Def’s “A Children’s Story”. Like Slick Rick’s original, you’ve got a story of a thief. However, instead of a robber, you’ve got a wack MC jacking beats.

They jacked the beats, money came wit' ease
But son, he couldn't stop, it's like he had a disease
He jacked another and another, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder
Set some R & B over the track for 'Deep Cover' (187!)
The kid got wild startin' actin' erratic
He said "Yo, that presidential I got ta have it..."
With liquor in his belly son, he made up the track
But little did he know that his joints was wack
The shiny A & R said ";Great new hit G!"
"Whenever you need a loop, yo come get me..."

I’m so high on “Brown Skin Lady” that I’ve started teaching my 18-month old daughter the lyrics. Some might find this hypocritical (as my lovely wife is white), but I don’t. The song basically tells young Black ladies to be true to their looks, because they are beautiful in their own way.

As Talib says during the outro…

You know what some people put themselves through
to look just like you?
Dark stocking, high heels, lipstick, all of that
You know what?
Without makeup you're beautiful
Whatcha you need to paint the next face for
We're not dealin’ with the European standard of beauty tonight
Turn off the TV and put the magazine away
In the mirror tell me what you see
See the evidence of divine presence

Talib gets his solo treatment on “KOS (Determination)”. Over a smoothed’ out Minnie Riperton sample, Kweli tells us to focus on gaining knowledge about ourselves and our self worth:
you can bet
they tryin to lock you down like Attica, the African Diaspora
represents strength in numbers, a giant can't slumber forever
I know you gotta get that cheddar whatever
Aiyyo I heard you twice the first time money, get it together
You must be History, you repeatin’ yourself out of the pages
You keepin’ yourself depleatin’ your spiritual wealth
That quick cash'll get you’re a-- quick fast in houses of detention
Inner-city concentration camps where no one pays attention
or mentions the ascension of death, til nothing's left
The young, gifted and Black are sprung addicted to crack
All my people where y'all at cause, y'all ain't here
And your hero's using your mind as a canvas to paint fear

The jewel on the album is “Thieves in The Night”. Inspired by Toni Morrison’s Bluest Eye, “Thieves…” tells us that we shouldn’t be fooled with the “illusions” of life. Those illusions include perceived wealth, bravery, and knowledge. The chorus is taken from the final sentence of the book:

[Mos Def] Not strong
[Ta.] Only aggressive
[M.D.] Not free
[T.K.] We only licensed
[M.D.] Not compassionate, only polite
[T.K.] Now who the nicest?
[M.D.] Not good but well behaved
[T.K.] Chasin’ after death
so we can call ourselves brave?
[M.D.] Still livin’ like mental slaves
[both] Hidin’ like thieves in the night from life
Illusions of oasis makin’ you look twice
[both] Hidin’ like thieves in the night from life
Illusions of oasis makin’ you look twice

Talib shines on the track, but Mos Def take the song to a whole new level on his verse. A few nuggets…

Foolishly, most men join the ranks cluelessly
Buffoonishly accept the deception, believe the perception
Reflection rarely seen across the surface of the lookin glass
Walkin the street, wonderin who they be lookin past
Lookin gassed with them imported designer shades on
Stars shine bright, but the light -- rarely stays on
Same song, just remixed, different arrangement
Put you on a yacht but they won't call it a slaveship
Strangeness, you don't control this, you barely hold this
Screamin brand new, when they just sanitized the old sh**
Suppose it's, just another clever Jedi mind trick
That they been runnin across stars through all the time with
I find it's distressin, there's never no in-between
We either nig*** or Kings
We either bit*** or Queens
The deadly ritual seems immersed, in the perverse
Full of short attention spans, short tempers, and short skirts

In fact, you could use the last part of Mos’ verse to summarize why the album is so good…

I give a damn if any fan recall my legacy
I'm tryin to live life in the sight of God's memory

These guys aren’t trying to appease the masses. They’re trying to make good music; their confident that the masses with come to them.

And they’re right.

So, dear reader, I hope you take note of some of the things I called out. Besides the artists I mentioned, there are plenty more that represent true hip-hop. Other albums you should check out:

- A Tribe Called Quest’s Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders
- Little Brother’s The Listening and The Minstrel Show- OutKast’s ATLiens and Stankonia
- Lupe Fiasco’s Food and Liquor
- Common’s Be- Kanye West’s College Dropout- Mos Def’s Black on Both Sides


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