via Consequence of Sound
The year is 1998, future meme-worthy songs such as “My Heart Will Go On”, “Believe” and “I Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing” top the charts. Hip-hop is still recovering from the from the deaths of Biggie Smalls and 2pac. For many, the murders of these larger than life figures signals the end of rap’s golden era. Out of the dying embers of that era, Mos Def and Talib Kweli, as Black Star emerged.
Both emcees were already known in the boroughs of New York as prodigious lyricists. Black Star was an amalgamation of all of hip-hop’s best aspects. They didn't just impact the listener sonically, they used the canvas of the mind. You’re taken to the streets of Harlem, you’re put into the shoes of a young African-American. Black Star is a story, it’s a history lesson about struggle and triumph.
Historically Black Star was the name of a ship, bought by Marcus Garvey to bolster the African global economy. Marcus Garvey was a hero in the community, serving as the leader of the Universal Negro Improvement Association. The Black Star Line derived its name from the White Star Line, a prominent shipping corporation owned by the British. Garvey didn’t just think he could match the success of the White Star Line, but outdo them.
Black Star indulges the listener with a detailed account of what its like to be a young African American growing up in Harlem.
Sometimes focusing too much on the bigger picture dilutes the message. Black Star was able to tread this line masterfully. They touched on themes such as African-American esteem, culture, love and pride. Everything is told through a personal story, through the experiences of the black youth.
“Definition” is inspired by the Boogie Down Productions song “Stop the Violence”. Kweli and Mos Def philosophize the concept of death in the black community, pointing to all the martyrs who have struggled for black independence. They interpolate “Children’s Story” by Slick Rick, turning it into a tale of how a frustrated black child resorts to crime when society has failed to give him the opportunity to succeed. In the story, the boy resorts to alcoholism and drugs to numb the pain and dull his conscience. Ultimately, he is cornered by society’s “enforcers”, the police who take his life. “B Boys Will B Boys”, is a throwback to breakdance scene, which hip hop was born out of in the late 1970s. “Respiration” is one of the most stirring tracks on the album. It’s a poetic juxtaposition of despair and hope. It parodies the idea of New York being the city that never sleeps. While the saying often has a positive connotation, here it means insomnia. Gun violence till the crack of dawn. Mos Def and Talib Kweli, find their source of inspiration in the beauty of the moon hanging over the New York skyline like a crown. The brisk night air is intoxicating, a breath of new life.
The entire album is produced by Hi-Tek, who had worked extensively as Kweli’s counterpart in Reflection Eternal. Hi-Tek doesn’t experiment into any new territory in his tracks, but that’s not where the beauty of his production lies. It’s the selection of samples, which capture the spirit of the album. The sampling of artists such as Gil Scott-Heron, Minnie Ripperton, Boogie Down Productions, even the documentary Style Wars, sent out a strong artistic message. Each sample brought a taste of flair and authenticity that embellished the Black Star ethos.
Twenty years on, this album lives as a fable. It’s a pillar of strength for the African-American community. To this day, it’s the only release under Black Star. Mos Def and Talib Kweli went on to have successful individual careers, but fans have always craved a sequel. Given the current climate of race relations in the United States, this is a likely prospect. Black Star couldn’t be more relevant. Fortunately, it looks like a reunion could be in the mix, with Madlib rumored to be supplying Black Star with production. Here’s to the Black Star sequel being as timeless as its predecessor.