In 1998 the hip-hop community was reeling from the mysterious and tragic murders of two of its biggest, and most beloved, stars: Tupac and Biggie. Questions swirled around their deaths, the role of rap in their killings, and the future of hip-hop itself. It was into this chaotic uncertainty that Talib Kweli and Yasiin Bey, known at the time as Mos Def, stepped. Collectively known as Black Star, the duo dropped Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star, an album that, although commercially neglected upon its release, has become recognized as a watershed moment in hip-hop history, a singularly intelligent, socially conscious work that helped define hip-hop and enable its evolution into the 21st century. After releasing the project the two went their separate ways, occasionally featuring on each other’s songs, offering tantalizing glimpses of what Black Star’s sophomore effort might sound like, and sparking hopes of a reunion.
This year, fans around the world were reminded of the dynamism of the duo as the two reunited to perform their classic in full at various Rock the Bells festivals around the country. Most recently, they unveiled new material on the Colbert Report, and once again fans are asking, “Will they? Or won’t they?” with strong advocates on both sides. But somewhat lost in this speculation is a more fundamental question: should they? In 1998 the nation needed Black Star; it needed a voice of reason, a voice of confidence without violence, an advocate of personal knowledge and growth. It needed someone to help diffuse the tensions between angry communities on either coast. Black Star filled this need then, but does music need them now?
The original Black Star album was a work of art that was very much a product of a specific historical moment. It was a salve for a pained community and provided a lighthouse for a disoriented genre. To place Black Star out of this context, it has been argued, would be to dilute its importance and power. The album should be left alone to remain forever the classic that it was, and it shouldn’t be sullied by a second shot at success, one that would be hard pressed to live up to the shining legacy of the first album. It is true that Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star has gained a hallowed status in the hip-hop canon as one of the foundational works of 21st century underground hip-hop, and that the impact of the album is ubiquitous in the genre. In a very real sense, Bey and Kweli have become the spiritual guides for a generation of artists ranging from superstars like Kanye West to a hoard of young, hungry talent. But the essential argument is that no one wants to see another Matrix Reloaded.
However, there is a strong indication that hip-hop in 2011 needs Black Star. The time since 1998 has seen the commercialization of hip-hop continue at breakneck speed. These changes have not always been favorable to hip-hop as an art form. Black Star was an incredibly organic hip-hop album, from the classic production to the impeccably poetic lyricism. Increasingly the fertile environment that gave birth to Black Star is being eliminated by the synthetic fertilizers of Lex Luger beats, Autotunes, and Roscoe Dash hooks, all elements capable of increasing the short-term returns from the music, but that slowly erode the genre. Now I enjoy a Rick Ross banger as much as the next person, but there can be no doubt that they contain none of the thought-provoking artistry of Black Star. The proliferation of club smashes is made the direr by a general dearth of intelligent hip-hop music that people can unite behind, a proportion that seems unsustainable. Bey and Kweli seem aware of this problem, as on their new song, “Fix Up,” they point out that “the game is bloated, there’s no escape,” and they attack rappers for being as “synthetic as a designer drug.” Now if only they’d come and do something about it.
That said, there is a more pressing reason that the world needs Black Star beyond the typical bemoaning of a hip-hop fan. Every day reports of unrest around the world fill the tickers of the twenty-four hour news cycle. America struggles under a wave of political apathy and unrest manifested most visibly by the current occupation of Wall Street that, far from dwindling out, is spreading both in New York and in other cities around the country. Bey and Kweli have a proven ability to tap into this kind of roiling frustration, help make sense of it and even alleviate it. Their keen social insight and ability to translate what they see into song is their greatest strength, and people need a voice that can simultaneously express their discontent while coupling it with the easy, empowering confidence and positivity that Black Star brings to every song.
“Fix Up” seems to indicate that they still can do so. The song is as smooth as anything they’ve ever done, with a nod-inducing Stones Throw beat, seamless interplay between Bey and Kweli, and typically polished lyrical work. The true brilliance of the song, in terms of its socio-political power, comes from the hook referencing “Fix Up, Look Sharp,” the hit single from Dizzee Rascal’s grime classic Boy in Da Corner. The Dizzee allusion brings with it the unsettling, indomitable urban fieriness of Dizzee’s debut, but this chaos is not allowed to escape and wreak havoc. It is mollified by Bey’s singing, and overall coolness, which impose a sense of calm on the sentiment of the original. As they always do, Black Star makes sense of mayhem, allowing simmering frustrations to find an outlet and expression that is not caught up in the pandemonium they create.
This is why America needs Black Star. Kweli seems to know this, as he performed “Thieves in the Night” at the Wall Street occupation the other night. But we don’t need “Thieves in the Night” as much as we did, timeless as that song is. We are finally starting to see through the “illusions of oasis” that “Thieves in the Night” pointed out to us over ten years ago, and although our arms are still “too short to box with God,” we certainly seem to be lining up at Wall Street and our politicians. So Kweli and Bey’s work is not done. We still need their voices to help us understand our social climate and ourselves. We still need Black Star.