“We feel like we have a responsibility…to shine light…into the darkness”
– Black Star (Intro)
Sometimes I find it difficult to articulate what hip-hop is. In this post, I will shed light on it through the lens of what in my mind is the most ‘hip-hop’ album ever made. Afterwards, you can reflect on the meaning. In 1998, then-unknown Mos Def and Talib Kweli came together under the moniker Black Star to create a conscious, culturally empowering, intelligent and lyrically substantive piece of art. This, one year after the death of Biggie and Tupac, when hip-hop was paradoxically at its golden-age but also had a vacuum for a new role model and introspection on the state of the art form through a socially conscious point of view.
In their album, blackstar turn hip-hop on its head and critique artistic glorifications, redefine black identity, and speak to issues of socio-economic disadvantages in the African-american communities as source of empowerment. In the Intro track they call themselves “real life documentarians” and act as such throughout the album. Let look at three powerful tracks.
Astronomy (8th Light)
The opening track sets the stage for the remainder of the album and the duo comments on how the word “black” is and should be used in every day speech. Rather than a black vs. white binary mirroring a bad vs. good one, they counter this idea with positive similies and bond over “black” being a term of endearment rather than a limitation. All this, with great lyrical dexterity and a call-and-response flow.
What is the Black Star?
Is it the cat with the black shades, the black car?
Is it shining from very far, to where you are?
It is commonplace and different
Intimate and distant
Fresher than an infant
Black, my family thick, like they’re striped molasses
Star, on the rise, in the eyes of the masses
Black is the color of my true love’s hair
Star’s are bright, shining, hot balls of air
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
Black like assassin cross hairs
Blacker than my granddaddy armchair
He never really got no time to chill there
Cause this life is warfare, warfare
This is a favorite of mine, both because of the message and the verbal acrobatics and chemistry between Def and Kwali. They play the role of street prophets and reflect on how growing up amidst poverty and violence is a source of empowerment for what you can become, in contrast to most artists at the time focusing solely on the former. To present a message with a good flow, lyrical complexity, and delivery is tough, and they do it perfectly. The lyrical themes mostly consist of multi-syllabic rhyming, accented words, and matching rhymes and syllables perfectly in line with the beat.
“Consider me the entity within the industry without a history
Of spitting the epitome of stupidity
Living my life, expressing my liberty, it gotta be done properly
My name is in the middle of equality“
This is a beautiful track with strong imagery and plays to ones imagination, which is a rare theme in hip hop at the time. It’s a poetic story of New York and dives deep to celebrate the “nightime”, thieves, skyscrapers, corrupt cops, and other elements. Cities define who we are and this pays beautiful homage to that. I’m not from NY but I can appreciate it nonetheless. Kweli jumps in with puns and quick rhymes and goes deeper into the idea of night as metaphor. This track went over my head the first few times. It reminded me of dissecting poems in high school. For example, this is packed into 15 seconds:
Looking the skies for God / what you see besides the smog / is broken dreams flying away on the wings of the obscene. / Thoughts that people put in the air / places where you could get murdered over a glare, / but everything is fair. / It’s a paradox we call reality / but keeping it real won’t make you a casualty of abnormal normality.”
I still don’t have a definition, but I know black star is the epitome of it.