Sometimes music is so ahead of its time that people aren’t ready for it, so they push it to the back, and then BOOM, years later everyone gets it. When we talk about the best hip hop albums of 1998, people always overlook the legendary Rawkus Records release, ‘Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star’.
When The Source Magazine rated the album, they only 3.5 Mics. Not a terrible rating. I just personally felt it deserved a little more respect. The album was definitely the odd man out of the bunch in ’98 compared to the other big selling albums released that year. No, it wasn’t packed with the club bangers and hustler anthems we were all accostumed to at that time. Instead, it was flooded with priceless jewels on life.
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When folks debate about why they hate hip hop, usually somewhere in the conversation you hear, “I don’t like how they disrespect women”. But they clearly overlooked the ode to black women with “Brown Skin Lady”. Mos and Talib professed their affection to the black woman and didn’t utter the word “bitch” once.
On “Astronomy (8th Light)” when Talib said, “there’s so much to life when you just stay black and die”, I fell off my bed. That line is still one of the deepest lines I’ve ever heard in my life. I was so hype off the lead single “Definition” I had no idea what I was walking into.
Mos Def paid homage to the legendary Slick Rick while calling out culture vultures on his remake version of “Children’s Story”. Looking back, it’s almost like Mos had the foresight to see what was about to happen to the game. I don’t like the terms “woke” and “conscious” because nowadays I feel like people use it way too loosely. But I will say, Mos and Kweli dropped countless gems. Listening to this album 20 years later, you can envision the duo as the cats on the block who tried to steer you away from the traps that some black men and women have fell victim to.
On “K.O.S. (Determination)” Talib broke down what it’s like to be a black man in America in one verse: “Being a black man is demanding / the fire’s in my eyes and the flames need fanning”. There’s no way in hell you couldn’t feel that in your heart.
The songs “Definition” and “Re:Definition” showed that they didn’t need to have jewelry or money, just bars, plain and simple. Hip hop has always needed this balance although folks still go with what’s trending.
My personal favorite cut off the album was “Respiration” featuring the legendary Common who spat one of the illest guest verses ever! And the hook let you know that they had a lot on their mind:
So much on my mind I just can’t recline
Blasting holes in the night til she bled sunshine
Breathe in, inhale vapors from bright stars that shine
Breathe out, weed smoke retrace the skyline
Even though the Black Star album wasnt commercially successful, the album is still a masterpiece that a lot of us hip hop heads hold in high regard. I don’t know if it’s because it wasn’t for the big willies, the cats with 20 bricks in the back of the rental, if it wasn’t aimed at the ride or die chicks, or “the ladies in the place with style and grace”. Either way, they missed out on an amazing album. And although this was Mos and Talib’s only group project, the two embarked on incredible solo careers and have made themselves immortalized in hip hop history.
Side Note: Recently the duo announced a new Black Star project, entirely produced by Madlib, is on the way. So hold tight.