By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
"EVERY DAY SOMEBODY asks me where all the real MCs is at... They underground," Talib Kweli pontificates at the opening of "Hater Players" from Black Star's self-titled debut. It's Kweli's pledge of allegiance to the standoffish, "Independent as Fuck" philosophy espoused by Black Star's labelmates and fellow Brooklynites Company Flow. And Black Star's raw, brainy, dystopian lyrics suggest they mean what they spiel. On Black Star, Kweli and his partner Dante "Mos Def" Beze prop up their aspirations and egos ("Re...Definition" proclaims that Black Star "rules in hip hop"), against a sound that straddles the aesthetic chasm between their Native Tongues forefathers and their Brooklyn peers.
Yet when they evoke the effortless flow and cheery positivity of groups like A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul, Black Star sounds timid and empty, especially on "KOS Determination," on which Mos Def and Kweli rap that "knowledge is self-determination" over a fluffy, formulaic R&B groove. The duo's sincerity gets downright silly on "Brown Skin Lady," wherein Kweli tells his lover she's "lovable, huggable, doable like art." But the track does provide a clue to the duo's dilemma: They're too shy to really show off. Kweli confesses that he "used to have a complex about getting too complex."
He's obviously still getting over it. Kweli sounds like a precocious pipsqueak: While he's neither as forceful nor as eloquent as his partner, his youthful voice is quirky and exuberant. His flow stutters at times, but he's propelled by an improvisational intensity that leads him to toss off lines like, "you'll be kicked into obscurity like Judo--no Menudo, because you're pseudo." In contrast, Mos Def is Black Star's brain and brawn. His rhymes are gruff staccato barbs, and at his best, he marries the wacky fury of the Wu-Tang's GZA with Q-Tip's effortless wordplay.
"Respiration" is Black Star's chilling high-point. Abandoning the lazy jazzy grooves and Quest-inspired abstract doodling of earlier tracks, the duo (with the help of guest MC Common) paints spookier, graphic images. The track is a relentless, indignant rant against poverty, a paean to deferred dreams that evokes the bleak urgency of Langston Hughes: "Look in the skies for God/What you see besides the smog is broken dreams/Flying away on the wings of the obscene," Kweli howls. On the chorus, Mos Def evokes the maddening pressures of inner-city life with a visceral, inspired chant that leaves him breathless: "I heard the bass ride out like an ancient mating call/I can't take it y'all/I can feel the city breathing/Chest heaving against the flesh of the evening."