In this installment of Underground, I will dive into some pieces of the album “Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star” released in 1998. This album is the only album released by Black Star with their second album coming out sometime this year.
Even though this album, performed by Mos Def (who now goes by Yasiin Bey) and Talib Kweli, received critical acclaim it only did modestly well in sales. But the content of this album was intelligent, relevant and ahead of its time. While critics praise Black Star’s lyricism and musicality of the beats and samples, it was not accessible to the masses due to the dominance of the rap mainstream led by Puff Daddy.
Let’s focus on four pieces of the album that, to me, stood out due to its meanings, musicality and its enduring relevance that still resonates with our present time:
The first piece that got my attention was the song “Definition.” This song reflects on the deaths of Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G. Their dedication mixes with a significant critique of hip-hop and its fixation of death. It’s as if the hip-hop industry considered slain rappers are the way to bring success in the music industry as a whole; death in the music industry is not a new trick, but it was brand new in hip-hop at the time, and hip-hop labels were ready to pounce on this concept.
The next song took me back to a time when hip-hop had meaning: “Children’s Story.” Mos Def’s delivery was almost exactly like the original version of “Children’s Story” made very famous by Slick Rick (remember his music video?). But instead of following Slick Rick’s cautionary tale of a young man heading towards a life of crime that ends in his death at the hands of police, Mos Def’s message is about the negative effects of materialism in the hip-hop world and how promoting sub-par popular music leads to creative and financial ruin in a short span of time. Jacking beats was common in the late 90’s (this practice is still prevalent to this day), and Mos Def warns that selling yourself for money and fame will leave you morally, creatively and emotionally bankrupt; you may have the money, but after you are all used up you get tossed by “the next big thing,” thus repeating the same story again.
“Brown Skin Lady” is an appreciation of black and brown-skinned women of all kinds and nationalities, including the indigenous women of Earth. Mos and Talib glorify these women almost nonstop (e.g., not needing beauty products to show off your natural beauty, how Talib pursues a brown-skinned woman for being refined and not just by being fine). “Brown Skin Lady” also foreshadows the now present issue of what constitutes a brown-skinned “beauty” in a world where beauty is defined solely on European or white standards.
“Thieves in the Night” is the masterpiece of this album. Inspired by the novel “The Bluest Eye” written by Toni Morrison in 1970, “Thieves in the Night” delivers a futuristic message about the issue of inclusion in a world dominated by whiteness. The chorus was derived from a passage from “The Bluest Eye,” and its content further demonstrates the consciousness of both Talib and Mos since they have read the novel themselves. For a song from 1998 that describes a racial issue that has not been resolved to this day, Black Star has the subject of racism and institutional exclusion almost spot on; only now has the issue of whiteness been put into question as opposed to 1998.
“Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star” is indeed a landmark album ahead of its time. If Black Star was more prominent after their album came out, maybe the world would have been a little better than it is now. The message has been heard, but the reaction is barely taking place. I can’t wait to hear what Black Star has to deliver next with their upcoming second album.