Black Star: We Break Down Mos Def and Talib Kweli's Brilliance

Hip-hop's history might be strewn with many more notable groups than duos, but time and time again, a couple of guys are able to come together and blow everyone to smithereens. So many great twofers have existed in rap: Eric B. & Rakim, Outkast, Blackalicious, Atmosphere, and Gang Starr.

In 1998, Mos Def and Talib Kweli joined this eminent club by collaborating under the moniker of Black Star for the simply titled Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star. Sure, this union might not have had the star power of that Jay-Z/Kanye record from earlier this year (say, whatever came of that?), but creatively, the collaboration paid off very well. In Black Star's wake, Def and Kweli have sporadically re-teamed for about a dozen other projects. On Thursday night, the two MCs play Club Nokia in Los Angeles with Orgone (Black Star were supposed to hit House of Blues in Anaheim on Nov. 3, but "unforeseen circumstances" sunk that show and others on the same tour), so let's devote a moment to revisiting what made this debut such a gem.

Its thoughtful righteousness
Def and Kweli pointedly aim for their rhymes to exude substance and intelligence, and in the record's introductory track ("Intro," natch), they make reference to themselves as "real-life documentarians." Even if the duo can occasionally be too self-aware for their own good (in this branch of hip-hop, humility is more effective than bravado), they make up for any faults by sincerely devoting themselves to generating good analysis. Their greatest insight comes in the form of "Astronomy (8th Light)," a track that comments on how we use "black" in language. More often than not, black is to white as evil is to good, but Def and Kweli make it a point to counter this idea with positive similes:

Black like my baby girl's stare/Black like the veil that the Muslimina wear
Black like the planet that they fear (Why they scared?)/Black like the slave ship that later brought us here
Black like the cheeks that are roadways for tears/That leave black faces well-traveled with years

While the track's call-and-response chorus has the over-earnestness of little kids giving themselves gold stars (Mos: "You know who else is a Black Star?" Talib: "Who?" Mos: "Me," and then vice-versa with Kweli leading), the song itself is so reasonable and smart that it makes you want to re-evaluate how you speak.

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