This is the second in a series looking back at September 29, 1998. A classic release day in hip-hop where several gamechangers came out. This is Part 2 looking at Black Star’s classic debut “Mos Def and Talib Kweli are Black Star.”
It was fitting that A Tribe Called Quest released their last album on 9/29/98 because their torch was passed in two ways. It was passed to OutKast on Aquemini (which I’ll discuss later) but also Black Star, who took a similar road that Tribe carved out.
I first heard Black Star’s album in fall 2004. One of my advisors in our multicultural center passed me a copy that I burned along with The Roots “Things Fall Apart”. Soon as I listened to it, I was hooked by the beats, rhymes and life of hearing two of my favorites start their careers.*
The album felt like a throwback while looking ahead. The “B-Boys will be B-Boys” skit reminded you of when hip-hop was a park jam and dancing was just as important as MCing.
Maybe that’s why Black Star is significant 15 years later. While Jay-Z revived Biggie’s formula and DMX brought the street element, that album was one of the first to try and recreate that early 90’s feel of alternative rap groups like Tribe, De La Soul and others.
Both Yasiin Bey (Mos Def) and Talib Kweli had strong flows and voices that commanded respect. Like the man they borrowed their album title from, they had a clear vision for their listeners and the Black community. Spark up the best of what they grew up and inspire folks to be better by highlighting problems with the times.
“Definition” was a call to arms to redefine hip-hop for what it used to be and leave the violence behind. It looked back by sampling Boogie Down Productions several times but it was forward thinking in updating the past for a new era. “Re:DEFinition” made that clear by flipping the beat.
“Respiration” gives me chills with three stellar verses that sound like the pulse of a city at night. It also has excellent street observations from Kweli, Yasiin and Common over a gritty beat that feels perfect at night or walking the street.**
Thieves In The Night has one of my favorite verses of all time. Influenced by Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye”, Talib Kweli drops a great verse on misplaced priorities in our life and the hook speaks on fake personas/bravados. But this is all about Yasiin as he pours out gems about the state of the Black community, hip-hop and more.
That performance was a sign that just like Q-Tip on Tribe’s debut, Yasiin was confident and ready to take over. It’s no surprise that his debut became one of the best albums of the year and had folks optimistic that he’d become one of the greats.
But after Black on Both Sides, it took Yasiin 10 more years to make another album worthy of his talents despite dropping great songs, becoming an actor and speaking out against the Bush Administration***
Kweli gave you a glimpse of his solo prowess on “KOS (Determination)”, which almost was a mantra of the hope he had to make hip-hop progress. He’d delve into that further on “The Manifesto” and even though it took him longer to be a solo artist – Quality dropped four years after Black Star – you could argue he made better albums than Yasiin in this century.****
This album was also significant in the rise of Rawkus Records, the champions of the underground that rose with the rising tide of mainstream rap. Company Flow put Rawkus on the map in 1997 but Black Star made Rawkus an even bigger player on the rap scene.
I’d hear about Lyricist Lounge and the Soundbombing records in high school. Records like “Ms. Fat Booty”, “Simon Says” and “B-Boy Document 99” still got radio play alongside Jay-Z, DMX, and other mainstream records. As much as my generation caught hip-hop at its most popular, we still got educated on the underground before hip-hop got segregated for good.
Black Star shouldn’t overshadow what both of them did as solo artists. Yasiin made a modern classic and Kweli has released three (out of five) very good solo albums, along with his two Reflection Eternal gems. But every time they collaborated -“Know That”, “Supreme Supreme”, “Joy” and “History” – folks always asked about a true reunion. Even I was bummed when I missed this them going on tour a couple years ago.
It’s the gift and curse of making a perfect snapshot of two eras. But for me, 15 years later, I enjoy this album because it’s a perfect record. It’s two MC’s who were successful in recreating the past while also advancing the last major underground movement and musically it still gets me excited like that first time I heard it in my dorm.
*The ending posse cut “Twice Inna Lifetime” helped influence my first Virgo nickname. Wordsworth said “Call me Diamond, cause I’m ya girl’s best friend”. So the 20-year-old me adopted Virgo Diamond. Thankfully I settled on Virgo Kent.
***I remember buying New Danger and being disappointed despite being into more rock. If you can find a copy of True Magic, consider yourself lucky. But Mos was still killing songs (see: The Roots “Rising Down”, “Ghetto Rock”, “Sex, Love and Money”, Beef, Kanye’s “Two Words”, and the remix to Justice’s “D.A.N.C.E.”)
****Kweli released Quality (2002), Eardrum (2007) and the slept-on Prisoner of Conscious (2013). Yasiin dropped his great comeback record The Ecstatic in 2009.