Wednesday, February 29, 2012

My Favorite Albums: Mos Def and Talib Kweli are Black Star

Mos Def and Talib Kweli are Black Star is a simple title to a very complex album. I wrote about the technical excellence of Black Star’s introductory (and so far, only) release a few years ago; I want to revisit the album – this time from a personal viewpoint.

I first heard Black Star in the summer of 1999. I was between my senior and “super senior” years in college and was interning in New York (working on Long Island, living in Brooklyn). It was a special time in my life; I was evaluating my next steps through all prisms (social, spiritual, economic) and was making key decisions about the direction I wanted to take.

New York was the perfect backdrop for my sometimes poignant, often pointless ponderings on life. The city was a hotbed of activity and I took in my fair share –readings at Nuyorican Poets Cafe, jazz at the Blue Note, way-to-late nights out at countless Reggae clubs, and long walks throughout Manhattan.

It was on one of those long walks that I came across Black Star; by chance I walked into a free concert in Central Park. N’Dea Davenport was the featured performer. She was good… but the real stars were the lyrical duo of Mos and Talib. They flowed effortlessly on stage, as if they had been doing it for years.

I wrote their names down in my quotes book (along with the line “Your skin is the inspiration for cocoa butter”) and went on about my business… forgetting about them after a while.

Fast forward 7 years, and I’m now a recently married, young professional with a newborn. I came across Mos Def on TV, and decide to go back and listen to the tracks I first heard in New York. Becoming a working, mortgage-paying, family man had altered my view on things. Popular Hip-Hop, with its focus on material gains and sexual acts, had lost its appeal. Black Star spoke to the things that I cared about – especially in light of my children.

“Astronomy (8th Light)”, with its elegant riffs on the word black, became my baby girl’s hip-hop lullaby. After my second child was born, “Definition” became our anthem as we walked to the park – (substituting the girl’s names and other relevant words in the chorus).”Brown Skin Lady” was a reminder that their color was a beautiful as anyone else’s in the neighborhood.


My personal favorite on the album is “Thieves In The Night”. This 5-star-in-the-iTunes-Library masterpiece was inspired by the following line in Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye”:


And fantasy it was, for we were not strong, only aggressive; we were not free, merely licensed; we were not compassionate, we were polite; not good but well-behaved. We courted death in order to call ourselves brave, and hid like thieves from life.


“Thieves..” hit me square in the jaw. The lyrics were raw, and right on point. Too many times, we mistake strength and aggression; freedom with limited autonomy; compassion with politically-correct politeness. Mos Def’s lyrics hammer the point home:



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


With no offense to the Mount Rushmore of hip-hop giants (especially Public Enemy), I believe that Mos Def and Talib Kweili are Black Star is the most technically, socially, and emotionally perfect Hip-Hop album ever created.


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