What is Black Star? (1) The name of Marcus Garvey's African repatriation shipping line. (2) An astronomical body that absorbs all known matter with irresistible force. (3) The hip-hop duo of Mos Def and Talib Kweli. (4) The most intelligent debut album you'll hear all year.
The trick answer, of course, is all of the above. Black Star are the duo of Brooklyn, N.Y.-based rappers Mos Def and Talib Kweli. They consciously reference Garvey's proto-black nationalist movement as well as the celestial heavens, and their debut album is, quite simply, as articulate, intelligent and introspective a work as you could ever ask for.
These two are MCs for the thinking man -- a rare species in a musical culture that tends to focus on the lowest common denominators of drugs, sex and money.
Whereas most other rappers play in the ruins of failed ideals and social programs within the black community, Black Star try to paint a more hopeful picture through inspired lyrics, an over-arching perspective and a deep love of blackness. Like Amiri Baraka, Black Star represent the best ideals of the Black Art Movement, providing beauty and barbs in the same breath, delivering a message that's provocative yet positive.
Mos Def and Talib Kweli Are ... Black Star begins with "Astronomy (8th Light)," a stunning re-articulation of the "black is beautiful" aesthetic. Just peep Mos Def's lines where he tries to define the meaning of blackness: "Blacker than the night time sky of Bed-Stuy in July/ Black like assassins' crosshairs/ Blacker than my grand-daddy's armchair/ He never really got no time to chill there/ 'Cause his life was warfare." And Talib Kweli is no less poetically powerful with his run of analogies: "I love rocking beats like Coltrane loved Naima/ Like the student love the teacher/ Like the Prophet loved Khadijah/ Like I love my baby's features/ Like the Creator loves all creatures."
Trying to pick out the best song on this album is daunting; each has its own compelling qualities. Mos Def's remake of Slick Rick's classic "Children's Story," for example, transforms Rick's parable of street crime and lives gone wrong into an attack on laziness and stagnant creativity. And Talib Kweli's solo "KOS Determination" is yet another powerful call for establishing a moral center in hip-hop: "I know you got to chase the chedda, whatever/ I heard you the first time money, get it together."
There are some liabilities, however. The one area where Black Star falls short is in the beats department. The production, which was handled by a variety of contributors, including Shawn J Period, DJ Hi Tek and the Beatminerz, is kept subtle -- perhaps too much so -- on many of the tracks. In some, such as "Astronomy," the lyrics are so enrapturing that you may not notice. But on "Children's Story," the simple bassline beat feels underproduced and not up to par with Mos Def's verbal effort. Same goes for "Twice Inna Lifetime" and "Hater Players" -- songs where the lyrics simply aren't complemented enough by the music, creating an imbalance in overall tone.
However, there is plenty else, production-wise, to gravitate toward, like the tension-filled violins on "RE-DEFinition," or the simple, melancholy strings and keys on the outstanding "Thieves in the Night," or the resonant jazz guitar-line in "Respiration." The sound of the latter track, like that of a midnight blues jam, evokes the ambience of the city after dusk, while Mos Def, Talib Kweli and guest Common Sense deliver an ode to making sense of urban disorder. The song's poetics hit their zenith with the Mos Def-belted chorus: "Blasting holes in the night 'till she bled sunshine."
Just soak it all in and bathe in the light of Black Star.