“And that was…Knowledge of self! (Determination)”
In 1998 hip-hop was in an odd place. The music was fully entrenched in the blingy mindset, with cash, women, and very expensive things all over the place. At the same time, the community was trying to rebound from the murders of the Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac. Some fans were feeling that hip-hop was a bit lost. Two emcees from Brooklyn set out to set things right.
Black Star is the duo of Mos Def and Talib Kweli, who named their partnership after Marcus Garvey’s proposed Black Star Line, a way for African-Americans to travel back to Africa. Mos had come up through his group Urban Thermo Dynamics and with prominent features on Da Bush Babees‘ underrated Gravity and guest spots on De La’s Stakes is High. Talib had a few collaborations with the Ohio hip-hop group Mood and from there linked up with producer Hi-Tek. The two emcees had chemistry; both were concerned about the state of hip-hop and Blackness in America, and so they got to work on a collaborative effort…and made a landmark hip-hop record.
When Black Star hit in the summer of 1998 it arrived in the midst of a major moment of reflection for hip-hop. The album was a part of a wave of thoughtful, personal, and socially conscious records which deviated from the bling and excess. The wave included Tribe‘s The Love Movement, Outkast‘s Aquemini, and Lauryn Hill‘s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Black Star definitely has its own vibe. The album is sophisticated, elemental, and street-smart. It’s firmly rooted in New York City and hip-hop culture, with Mos and Talib being b-boys to the fullest, and pays deep respect to the history, culture, and elders. The album also preaches knowledge of self, individuality, and philosophizes about the state of being young, black, and urban. It was a top record in ’98 and two decades on, it’s still refreshing to hear. This album launched the careers of both emcees, and still remains an influential piece of work.
Originally, I wanted a track which featured both Mos and Talib on the mic, but I’mma let this Kweli solo joint slide because it’s damn near untouchable. “K.O.S. (Determination)” was a major obsession for me back in my early 20s, as at the time the track encapsulated everything I kind of wanted in a hip-hop joint: It was intelligent, composed, and soulful (that beat is so calming and moving). It’s something that you could vibe to, and it really made you think as well. Talib’s lines are immensely quotable, and the vocal contributions from the legend Vinia Mojica, a frequent collaborator with the Native Tongues in the late ’80s and early ’90s, is icing on the cake. This is still one of those tracks were everything feels just right, and mannnnnn, listening to this one today still warms my heart and soul.
(Originally posted on my old Tumblr page back in like 2011, but I rewrote a whole bunch of it!)