Mos Def and Talib Kweli Are Black Star

Mos Def, Talib Kweli

album cover

An Antidote to Bling Culture

Of the many changes that roiled hip-hop after the violent deaths of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G., the most dismaying was the rapid rise of bling culture. MCs and entrepreneurs like Sean Combs (then known as Puff Daddy) who'd been affected by those murders began aggressively name-checking brands of expensive Champagne and luxury cars, as though living large was the best way to escape the genre's multiplying tragedies. One could argue that this wave of narcissistic materialism contributed to the general erosion of persuasive wordplay: Where Tupac's raps, for example, waxed philosophical, the third-generation gangster like 50 Cent seized exclusively on the bullying gunplay.

Not everyone rolled that way. The New York–based Native Tongues collective, which spawned A Tribe Called Quest and others in the 1980s, promoted alternatives to the prevailing gangsta-rap viewpoints. This 1998 album, the only collaboration between agile thinkers Mos Def and Talib Kweli, is among the best.

They arrive at the microphone bursting with ideas—about the meaning of blackness ("black like the planet that they fear, why they scared?"), about the decline of the rhyming art ("some people think MC is shorthand for misconception"), about the rampant spread of violence ("Hater Players"). But they don't overwhelm listeners with verbiage. The thirteen tracks on this debut, named after the shipping line run by the Universal Negro Improvement Association founder Marcus Garvey, work first as music—the DJ Hi-Tek creates deep rhythmic pockets and thick atmospheres, and the two MCs just saunter through them. Those looking for polyrhythmic slice-and-dice rapping spiked with sticky melodic refrains (and narratives that don't involve loaded firearms) will find much to admire here.

Genre: Hip-Hop
Released: 1998, Rawkus
Key Tracks: "Astronomy (Eighth Light)," "Definition," "Brown Skin Lady," "K.O.S. (Determination)"
Catalog Choice: Mos Def: Black on Both Sides. Talib Kweli: Reflection Eternal
Next Stop: Common: Like Water for Chocolate
After That: Blackalicious: Blazing Arrow
Book Pages: 525–526

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#1 from travis, seattle - 10/15/2008 11:40

Prior to Mos Def becoming a (good!) actor, he Talib, & Hi Tek (dj) put out one of the best hip hop albums ever.  in the world of gangsta rap it was such a breath of fresh air to hear something positive besides A Tribe Called Quest (which are also great).  Thanks for putting a very underrated CD on the list.

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