Re:Definition: How Melody Made ‘Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star’ Timeless
Classic and timeless are not as synonymous as they used to be, with music and culture now moving at light speeds. Trends are born and die in the same hour, leaving so much quality and influential music sounding dated before it has to a chance to impress upon us a fine and aged appeal. Of course, trends come back around, and visionary artists can possess the foresight to make timeless music, but by and large, we cannot gauge the staying power of an album until years after it has comfortably taken root—when we know, we know.
This is the story of Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star, the iconic collaborative debut from New York underground heavyweights, Mos Def and Talib Kweli. It’s also an album that earned both classic and timeless status because of its versatility and smart use of melody two decades ahead of it becoming a hip-hop necessity.
As a duo and on wax, Black Star endures because they present as serious and politically savvy, but their execution is light and summery in all the right places. Classic albums of the same focus stand to become grating, but Black Star feels weightless in its approach.
With Black Star, there was a breeze. Even the heaviest of topics and catalysts—the deaths of both Biggie and 2Pac—were given the zero-gravity treatment without allowing the important to become the aimless. Where there could be drone (“Definition”), there is a sweet and simple song. Where there could be misguided attempts at empowering women (“Brown Skin Lady”), there is plainspoken joy and excitement. Where there could be patronizing words of wisdom (“Children’s Story”), there is an understated tenderness for all ages. Where backpack straps could have tightened, Mos Def and Talib Kweli brought a welcome ease to fastidious political philosophy. You’re welcome, Marcus Garvey.
While there was reason enough for Black Star to have struggled to thrive across two decades of hip-hop, the album did just the opposite. Namely, the record could have wilted as a preaching cut of East Coast rap cloth, but between the spring of Kweli’s verses and Mos Def’s singing on the most lecture-like moments on the album, Black Star escapes the dusty pitfalls of underground rap. As EW wrote in their 1998 review of the album: “Despite a commitment to positivity, this East Coast rap duo is more dynamic than didactic. It makes its ties to hip-hop’s roots clear by reinterpreting old-school classics by Boogie Down Productions and Slick Rick; its new-school energy, however, is anything but retro.”
That’s the key to all-time success: Black Star was about balance. From the messaging to the music, the duo leaned into their strengths by leaning away from their obvious hurdles.
Black Star did not simply use melody to sugarcoat their politics. The metaphor implies their audience simply went unaware, but that could not be further from the truth. Neither rapper was hiding their ideologies, but rather, the duo found a way to make them palatable and infectious summertime tunes. The goal of Black Star was not to necessarily sneak in political meaning but to make the political approachable and enjoyable. With that, the record was imbued with an aura of soul and heart that could never sound dated, that also colored Kweli’s delivery and the mahogany timbre of the album’s soundscapes. The depth of the bass on “Hater Players” felt etched into the breakbeats, and the looming keys on “Thieves in the Night” gave a parlor room richness to a five-minute sermon on fighting oppression and mental fortitude.
“Basically, with the Black Star album, we were speaking from our hearts, and I feel like even when we were doing the Black Star album, hip-hop was in a beautiful place,” Talib Kweli told The AV Club in 2000. Hip-hop, by definition, is beauty from madness, and few rappers could bust down the madness with surgical precision and care like Talib and Mos.
It was the one-two punch of “Definition” and “Re: Definition,” specifically, that illustrated the mastery of the Black Star record. Speaking on violence and liberation, it would be easy for either rapper to mount an off-putting moral high ground. Yet, the simplicity of the “Definition” hook, the singsong tone especially, humbled both Mos Def and Talib Kweli. These almost childlike moments scaled back the self-serious atmosphere of the writing and made the lessons of the record easy to digest and internalize. There was no effort required to live with the truths of Black Star because Black Star led with its best, most melodic foot forward.
“Back when we came out with the Black Star album, I felt like the balance wasn’t really being represented,” Kweli said. “Now, I think it’s being portrayed more in the media, really, and I think people really responded to the album in part because of our timing. When that shit came out, there was really nothing like it: Nobody was really putting out vinyl, nobody was really talking about those subjects. Things needed to be talked about.”
In 2000, and now in 2018, Talib Kweli was absolutely right: things needed to be discussed, and it was the manner and form in which he and Mos Def discussed them that made their album one of the most enduring of the last 20 years. They were by no means the first rappers to touch on violence, liberation, and feminism, but they were establishing a musical tradition for bringing these messages to mass audiences. Black Star’s influence extends beyond sonics and treads into execution. Everyone from Kanye West to Chicago’s tobi lou uses the Black Star approach to advance their morality and their truth in their music.
“I’ll hear a beautiful melody, like an Adele-type piano ballad, and then I’ll throw some hard-ass drums on that track,” lou told TIDAL earlier this year, breaking down his rap style. “The pretty melodies, and I’m saying the real shit that pertains to my world.” The weight of lou’s reality does not dissipate with the inclusion of melody; melody only serves to extend his platform. Weaving the beautiful with the sobering, that is Black Star 101.
At its core, Black Star was a duo obsessed with life. Enrapt in groove and melody, Black Star is an album that urges you to live despite the death and violence that steals away Black youth in America. These are the ingredients for timeless music, where every era in America is the era of resistance, and where each day brings with it another demand for light. Over 20 years, Black Star, with its poetic, free-flowing jazz, took the despair that comes with the truth of a timeless struggle and turned that expanse of darkness into a rallying cry of timeless living.
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