Released in the fall of '98, Black Star failed to chart higher than #53 or even crack the hip hop top 10, but was met with a fair amount of critical acclaim. Reviewers mainly cited the intelligent lyrics and deep examination of black culture, a sharp contrast to what was being put out by other popular artists at the time. The deaths of Tupac and Biggie towered over the industry, bringing more media attention to rap than ever before, and thus making gangsta rap an even stronger commercial force. Mos Def and Talib Kweli dared to put out something that was different, delaying their own individual projects to speak clearly about the ongoing violence in the industry, and in their words, "to shine a light into the darkness".
Today, I feel comfortable stating that this was one of the greatest hip hop albums of the 90s and woefully under-appreciated at the time, but by no fault of the average 90s listener. Mos Def and Talib were both just starting their careers, neither had even released a studio album yet, and Jay-Z's Hard Knock Life released on the same day. The people who did manage to listen to Black Star in 1998 surely picked up on what I heard the first time I listened to it nearly ten years later. Crisp vocals and insane chemistry, laid upon relaxed beats to let the lyrics and flow do all the talking. Listening to Nas got me hooked on this style of rap, a more introspective and raw feel, albeit not as emotionally powerful as something like Illmatic. What Black Star does offer is an expert duo, each with their own rapping talents that keep every track interesting and dynamic. Whether going back and forth or harmonizing together, not a beat feels out of place.
I doubt I'm alone when I say that I don't think Mos Def or Talib were ever better than when they were paired up on this album. A must-listen for any hip hop head, definitely check this one out or revisit it this week, a true classic.
1. "Intro" - 1:11
2. "Astronomy (8th Light)" - 3:23
3. "Definition" - 3:26
4. "Re: Definition" - 3:02
5. "Children's Story" - 3:32
6. "Brown Skin Lady" - 5:46
7. "B Boys Will B Boys" - 2:36
8. "K.O.S. (Determination)" - 4:49
9. "Hater Players" - 4:08
10. "Yo Yeah" - 1:10
11. "Respiration" - 6:05
12. "Thieves in the Night" - 5:16
13. "Twice Inna Lifetime" - 5:38