As De La Soul tried to tell us on their last album, there is a widening philosophical schism between rap music’s ”cash rules everything around me” pragmatists and its dreamers. On Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star, the Native Tongue-anointed duo who tag themselves Black Star explore and redefine this schism, in ways that replace the ancient dichotomy of ”old” versus ”new” school in favor of simply separating the true MCs from the tacky. They write politically astute, highly literate rhymes without recourse to profanity or pornography. And rather than borrowing hooks from top-40 pop records, Black Star prefer to quote KRS-One, Double Trouble, and Run-D.M.C.
Black Star’s new album only consolidates the lyrical m.o. these two have long deployed as individuals and as a team. As a guest rapper on De La’s ”Stakes Is High,” Mos Def argued: ”Niggas ain’t stoppin’ to think so they ain’t gon’ stop the violence/Music too loud to hear, so Doug E. Fresh say ‘Silence!’ ” Thus it’s no surprise that on the the current Black Star single ”Definition” Mos should reprise the ”Stop the Violence” theme. He and his partner extensively catalogue everything they think endangers the quality of rap. The track ”Children’s Story” is particularly blunt, indicting clueless radio DJs and corrupt major label executives.
Of course, Black Star happen to be black people with options. They have bought into the black bookstore where Talib Kweli worked, and Mos Def is a professional actor with several television roles under his belt. When hip-hop is not your only economic gravy train, you can afford to point fingers at those who exploit the music for pure financial gain. On the tune ”Hater Players,” Black Star dismiss the idea that there is something disloyal about putting down those who are primarily in the rap biz to make money: ”People afraid to say what is wack out of fear of being called a ‘hater’/Imagine that! . . . We ain’t havin’ that.” But they should be prepared for turnabout as fair play. Eventually they’ll score a breakthrough radio hit just like their idols De La and A Tribe Called Quest did, and who knows how mainstream fame will affect them? (Look at the transformed Fugee zealot Wyclef Jean.) Nothing on Mos Def and Talib Kweli Are Black Star even approaches the electrifying brilliance of ”Shakiyla” by Poor Righteous Teachers, or ”Fire and Earth” by X-Clan, or ”Bring the Noise” by P.E., but with their rhyming skills and chemistry it’s only a matter of time.
One clue to what their next step might be is the fact that Black Star have eschewed the more popular black power iconography of the 1960s to identify by name and album-cover art with Garveyism, an older, and some would say even more controversial source of black pride. In the 1920s, Marcus Garvey, who preached ”Do for Self” and both economic and ethical self-control, strove to create the Black Star Line–a fleet supposed to reestablish Africa as an economic power base for black people around the world. Everything said and done on the new Black Star album is aimed at getting all the hip-hop factions to unite around a morally refined Garveyite perspective.
What helps them preach to the unconverted is one of the tightest and most polished live shows around. Their frequent appearances on the open mike at Manhattan’s Lyricist Lounge keep their freestyle skills sharp, and this year alone they’ve played Japan and Cuba as well as bouncing from coast to coast in the U.S. promoting a spiraling number of solo and collaborative projects (Kweli teams again with Deejay Hi Tek to become Reflection Eternal on a separate Rawkus album due in April, while Mos Def has a solo deal through MCA). Last Wednesday at Irving Plaza, the group, arriving late from the airport, was forced to open for N’Dea Davenport without the backing instrumentals from their new album. Unruffled, they rhymed freestyle for a few minutes with topical information about the audience; their recent trips; McGwire and Sosa; Clinton and Lewinsky. Over Deejay Hi-Tek’s quick-mix mastery their voices were a rugged blend of textures, with Talib’s urgently staccato tenor spiking Mos Def’s rolling, oratorial midrange. They updated early underground singles like ”Universal Magnetic” and ”Body Rock,” then to the delight of some Lyricist Lounge regulars, guest stars Jeru tha Damaja, Black Thought, Afua, and Common–who cameos on the Black Star track ”Respiration”–joined the duo onstage to further dazzle the crowd.
Black Star exist largely to oppose the coon show aesthetics purveyed by a horde of self-proclaimed players and gangstas. Because the duo won’t tap dance the Big Willie lifestyle for Babylon they have to find a way to replace the entertainment value of such glossy Hollywood fantasies. The ”Definition” video colorizes the ordinary scenery of the inner city with a surreal overlay of red, gold, and green. Sometimes the colors are really there, and sometimes they are superimposed, as if Brooklyn had been captured in a Rastafarian snow globe. A cerebral little mind-fuck to be sure, but this simple device gives every scene the hallucinatory quality of a vision-quest, precisely the trip Black Star wants people to take.