Monday, February 05, 2007

Mos Def & Talib Kweli: A Primer

In most cases, there are two types of valedictorians: 1) the overachiever—the person who works harder than everybody else, takes unbeatable notes, organizes study groups, and does whatever it takes to get ahead and stay ahead in the classroom; and 2) the wiz—the person who grasps everything faster than everybody else, has never had to really work hard at their craft, and seems to move on from one idea before fully developing it. In the case of hip hop’s two young(ish) Brooklyn valedictorians, Talib Kweli is the overachiever, and Mos Def is the wiz.

They’ve only made one album together, and they’ve basically worked as solo artists for the last 7-8 years, but I figure it would be pretty fitting to do a Primer on the two of them together.

1. Definition, Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star. My first introduction to Black Star (as they are known when they are a duo) came in a Mizzou dorm in ’98. I was making a tape of a friend of mine’s hip hop collection (he owned turntables and lots of vinyl), and he insisted that I record their first single. That song was called “Definition,” and it knocked me over. I set a record for how long it took me to completely wear that tape out, then I headed to Slackers in downtown Columbia to buy the whole album.

(Seriously, how great was late-1998 for hip hop? Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt, Vol. 2: Hard-Knock Life, Outkast’s revelatory Aquemini, and Mos Def and Talib Kweli Are Black Star all came out in the last four months of the year. Those might be the best four hip hop albums of the last decade!)

Black Star was one of my first introductions into underground hip hop. I’ve loved hip hop for a long time (as have hundreds of thousands of white males my age), but until that point, about the furthest-from-mainstream I’d ventured was Aquemini. Even though Common and The Roots had been around a while by that point, I discovered them because of Black Star. Black Star was my gateway drug.

2. (Re)Definition, Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star. Something that immediately showed Black Star's uniqueness was this creative departure—they took “Definition’s” chorus, threw it behind a different beat, and created a brand new song with a completely different feel. Focusing on a theme of “too much violence in hip hop,” “Definition” and “(Re)Definition” are two of the most musically intense songs on Black Star, as the rest of the album focused on old school hip hop techniques and departures into the jazzy, soulful sounds of acts like The Roots and Common (Common actually had a verse in “Respiration”). There was intelligence and quality oozing out of every song, from “Brown Skin Lady” to “Thieves in the Night.” When I bought the cd for myself there was an insert advertising the then-upcoming Mos Def solo album, and though I’d known of these rappers for less than a year, I’d never found myself looking forward to a hip hop album this much before.

3. Ms. Fat Booty, Black on Both Sides (Mos Def). Despite the horribly unfortunate name of this song, this is one of my favorite hip hop songs ever. It’s also one of the rarest, in that it’s a non-cheesy hip hop love song. There aren’t many in this category. This song is great simply because of Mos’ lyrics and impeccable delivery.

She spot me like paparazzi; shot me a glance
In that catwoman stance with the fat booty pants, Hot damn!
What's your name love, where you came from?
Neck and wrist blazed up, very little make-up
The swims at the Reebok gym tone your frame up
Is sugar and spice the only thing that you made of?
I tried to play it low key but couldn't keep it down
Asked her to dance she was like "Yo, I'm leavin now"


Scene three: weeks of datin’, late night conversation
In the crib heart-racin’, tryin’ to be cool and patient
She touched on my eyelids, the room fell silent
She walked away smilin’, singin’ Gregory Issacs
Like “If I don't...if I don't...if I don't...”
Showin’ me that tan line and that tattoo
Playin Sade’s "Sweetest Taboo"
Burnin’ candles, all my other plans got cancelled
It’s at this point, about a quarter of the way through his solo debut, that you realize that Mos is one of the most charismatic and talented musicians (in any genre) in the last few decades. Whether he’s telling you about a failed relationship or injustice or pain, you believe every word he says, and you want to hear what he has to say about just about anything.

4. Four Women, Reflection Eternal (Talib Kweli & DJ Hi-Tek). You get the impression that Mos Def has never written down a lyric in his life. He just walks into the studio and nails his part. (Not saying that’s what he does—I have no idea—but that’s how it feels when I’m listening to him.) No matter what he’s saying in his lyrics, a laid-back feel almost always pervades his vocals. Kweli, on the get the impression that he works for it. Hard. Like, lots of notebooks of lyrics in his bedroom. The Chuck D-esque intensity which which he tends to deliver his vocals and the slightly more harsh sound of his voice perfectly complemented the smooth Mos on Black Star. However, Kweli quickly proved that he was more than capable of carrying an album by himself. While Mos was putting out Black on Both Sides, Kweli was preparing his first solo work, Reflection Eternal with DJ Hi-Tek. It was good, but it was no Black on Both Sides, which was the best album of 1999. Amazing, however, was the hidden track, “Four Women,” a take on an old Nina Simone song. And honestly, Kweli has really turned himself into hip hop’s Nina Simone—powerful, opinionated, talented...and a bit bitchy. But he gets his point across and writes some of the more poignant lyrics around.

I got off the 2-train in Brooklyn on my way to a session
Said let me help this woman up the stairs before I get to steppin'
We got in a conversation she said she’s 107
Just her presence was a blessing and her essence was a lesson
She had her head wrapped
And long dreads that peeked out the back
Like antenna to help her get a sense of where she was at
Imagine that—livin’ a century
The strength of her memories
Felt like an angel had been sent to me
She went from nigger to colored to negro to black
To afro then african-american and right back to nigger
You figure she'd be bitter in the twilight
But she’s alright, ‘cuz she done seen the circle of life
Not just any rapper would even think to attempt painting a portrait of four women in different stages of struggle and life, much less do it well.

5. Get By, Quality (Talib Kweli). Mos may have won the first round of the solo album battle (though it was a split decision), but Kweli’s more prolific output and increasing maturity have won the later rounds. “Get By” is, simply, the most inspirational hip hop song of the past decade or so, and likely the best song either of these artists has put out, together or solo. This Voices of Civil Rights article/column was beyond complimentary:
In a genre that has rightfully been criticized for its sexism, materialism and violence, rapper and native Brooklynite Talib Kweli is quite possibly the most prominent artist today in the tradition of socially conscious music.

This morning I woke up feeling brand new/I jumped up feeling
my highs and my lows /And my soul and my goals.

The lyrics are from “Get By,” a populist anthem praising the heart and resilience of everyday people. The song appears on Kweli’s album “Quality.” In the opening verse, Kweli urges his listeners to become politically active: Even when the condition is critical/and living is miserable/your position is critical.

“I definitely feel like hip hop artists have more musical knowledge than any generation before us because the nature of hip hop is to build on the past,” he says in his trademark raspy voice and deep-Flatbush accent. “The more you get invested in hip hop the more you learn about other music.”


Songs of conscience may not come to mind immediately when one hears the words “rap music,” but hip-hop is making an important contribution to the tradition of protest music and the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement. “There are a thousand hip-hop songs that share those themes,” Kweli points out. If anyone believes differently, he says, “they just aren’t listening.”
Some lyrics:
We keep it gangster, say "fo shizzle", "fo sheezy" and "stay crunk"
Its easy to "pull a breezy", "smoke trees", and "we stay drunk"
Our activism’s attackin’ the system, the blacks and latins in prison
Numbers in prisons—they’re victims—lackin’ the vision
And all they got is rappin’ to listen to
I let them know we missin’ you, the love is unconditional
Even when the condition is critical, when the livin’ is miserable
Your position is pivotal, I ain't bullshittin’ you
Now, why would I lie? Just to get by? Just to get by? Get fly?
TV got us reachin for stars
Not the ones between Venus and Mars, the ones that be readin’ for parts
Some people get breast enhancements and penis enlargers
Saturday sinners, Sunday morning at the feet of the Father
They need something to rely on, we get high on all types of drugs
Man, all you really need is love
To get by ... just to get by ... just to get by ... just to get by
Our parents sing like John Lennon, "Imagine all the people", watch
We rock like Paul McCartney from now until the last Beatle drop
It’s pretty clear that Kweli has a goal—to use whatever fame he can garner to affect positive change in the world. He’s an artist and an activist (though, as he’s sure to tell you, not a politician). And his music is the perfect example of the good that can come out of hip hop.

This reminds me of a passage I read recently from a Wright Thompson (Mizzou grad!) article about a couple of players from the Portland Trailblazers visiting Memphis’ Civil Rights Museum (h/t to True Hoop, a fantastic basketball site, for pointing this one out to me).

They walk past the bombed-out wreck of another bus, past photos of angry white faces at lunch counters, past metalwork from the Edmund Pettus Bridge. They listen to gospel singers belt out freedom songs.

"Hip-hop was freedom songs when it first came out," Bowles tells the group.

"Now it's about how many cars you got," Aldridge says.
In a lot of ways, I’ve stuck by hip hop the way I stick by Mizzou and the Pittsburgh Pirates (though at least hip hop rewards me least maybe once a year), and it’s because of artists like Kweli. Hip hop is entrenched in its hair metal stage at the moment (“I’m so cool! Look at what I can buy! Look at the women that are in my pool!”), but everything is cyclical, and when people start looking for value in hip hop again, hopefully they’ll find that in Kweli.

6. What’s Beef?, Chappelle’s Show (Season 1, Episode 12). For once, I was ahead of the curve on something. In February 2004, Season One of Chappelle’s Show came out on DVD to almost no fanfare...and ended up one of the best-selling DVD sets of all-time. Nobody knew the influence this show was having until stores were swamped with requests. How does that show I was ahead of the curve? Because I was driving around mid-Missouri the night of its release, trying to procure a copy before everybody else. It was a great show, and I watched every episode at least twice, but the reason I wanted the DVD so badly was so I could watch this performance by a briefly reunited Black Star.

One of the great things about what Chappelle did was, he went out of his way to say, “If people are actually liking what I do, and I have this bright light being shone on me, then I’m going to shine it on my friends, too.” He began featuring musical acts like Black Star and De La Soul, getting them some extra exposure. It was this thrown-together song that had the biggest impact on me. Kweli went first, and his verse was solid—he actually ended up using it as a verse in the first song on his next album, The Beautiful Struggle. But Mos, who hadn’t been too prolific lately because he was too busy becoming an award-nominated actor (it’s really not fair when people are so good at so many different things), came up with a Pantheon-level verse of his own. So many references in so little space, however a lot of it was based in reference to the ‘feud’ between Jay-Z and Nas at the time—I will always think that it was at least partially made up to sell records and get attention.

Beef is not what Jay said to Nas
Beef is when workin' n----s can't find jobs
So they’re tryin’ to find n----s to rob
Tryin’ to find bigger guns so they can finish the job
Beef is when the crack kids can't find moms
Cause they end up in a pine box or locked behind bars
Beef ain't the Summer Jam for Hot 97
Beef is the cocaine and AIDS epidemic
Beef don't come with a radio edit
Beef is when the judge is callin' you "defendant"
Beef, it comes with a long jail sentence
Handed down to you in a few short minutes
Beef is when your girl come through for a visit
Talkin' bout "I'm pregnant by some other n----"
Beef is high blood pressure and bad credit
Need a loan for your home and you're too broke to get it
And all your little kids is doin is gettin' bigger
You’re tryin’ not to raise 'em around these wild n----s
Beef is when a gold digger got ya seat and a
A manicured hand out like "pay me n---- or I'm tellin' your wife”
Or startin' up some foul rumor that'll ruin your life
Beef is when a gangster ain't doin it right
Another gangster then decided what to do with his life
Beef is not what these famous n----s do on the mic
Beef is what George Bush would do in a fight
Yeah, beef is not what Ja said to 50 (another feud reference, this one between Ja Rule and 50 Cent)
Beef is more than Irv not bein here with me (couldn’t tell for sure what he said in this line)
When a soldier ends his life with his own gun
Beef is tryin' to figure out what to tell his son
Beef is oil prices and geopolitics
Beef is Iraq, the West Bank, and Gaza Strip
Some beef is big and some beef is small
But what y'all call beef is not beef at all
Beef is real life happenin' everyday
And it's realer than them songs that you get at Kay Slay
7. Black Jack, The New Danger (Mos Def). I’m getting carried away here. I’ll try to limit the copy-pasting of lyrics, but it’s just so much easier to show the profundity of what their saying than to actually try and describe it myself. Maybe I’m just being lazy. Anyway, after doing quite a bit of acting and fighting with record labels, Mos finally returned to action in 2005 with his second solo album, The New Danger. He brought with him a hard rock band called Black Jack Johnson (named after the heavyweight champion, not the surfer/acoustic rocker, of course). About half the album was recorded with the band, and it’s a pretty interesting experiment. The plain old hip hop is pretty solid too, but only because Mos has so much talent. The first time I listened to this album, all I could think was, “I can’t wait to see what he does next time,” because while he went in interesting directions, it didn’t sound like he had put as much time into this one as he did on Black on Both Sides. It’s pretty hard splitting time between being a badass musician and award-worthy actor, and I think it shows on New Danger. “Black Jack” is one of the more interesting experiments, taking off from a standard blues guitar lick and bassline and incorporating mostly Mos’ singing, not his rapping.

Also notable about The New Danger was the bit of trouble Mos got in for his anti-industry song, "The Rape Over," in which he said both "some tall Israeli" (Lyor Cohen) and "quasi-homosexuals" were running hip hop, getting him called both anti-semitic and homophobic. You get in less trouble when you do something harmless, like threaten to kill somebody on your record. The song got removed from later versions of the album, but since I bought it the first day it was out, it's on my copy. I'm special. Or hopeless. One or the other.

Anyway, any excitement I had regarding Mos’ third album, however, was tempered when I read an interview with him a short while after New Danger came out. He expressed his disgust with the major labels and said he was going to crank out his third album pretty quickly so he could fulfill his contract and do what he wanted to after that.

8. Broken Glass, Beautiful Struggle (Talib Kweli). The best song of 2005. When you’re dealing with pain and wasted lives, not every song can be hopeful like “Get By.” Sometimes you have to tell the story of those who didn’t manage to just get by. With one of the best beats Pharrell Williams has ever produced, this song is the perfect combination of hard-hitting music and lyrics, telling the story of a girl with “dreams too big for a small town” who crashed and burned when she hit the big city. Not much else I can say beyond that...just a perfect hip hop song.

9. Ms. Hill, Right About Now (Talib Kweli). The best way to show just how prolific Kweli has been over the last few years is to look at the volume of ‘non-release’ releases (sometimes referred to just as ‘mixtapes’) he’s put out (Mos does this too, but Kweli does it more). One of the better ones was 2005’s Right About Now. It’s nothing special, really...the beats are relatively primitive and predictable, and he seems to have saved his best lyrics for official releases, but he just has too many great songs and verses to share, and quite a few of them will end up on these collections. The most notable song from Right About Now was “Ms. Hill,” a tribute to Lauryn Hill, an amazing artist and friend of Kweli’s, whose struggles with the music industry, religious machinery, and herself, have been pretty well-documented.

10. Dollar Day (Katrina Klap), True Magic (Mos Def). Two songs came out within, it seemed, just a week or two of Hurricane Katrina, that perfectly captured the anger and outrage that millions felt (and only thousands apparently still feel) about the neglect and abandonment of hundreds of thousands of people every bit as American as you or me or Mos Def or anybody else: Ben Harper’s “Black Rain” and Mos Def’s “Dollar Day (Katrina Klap).” I posted the video for this song a while back.

The thing about Mos Def, compared to most other musicians (and celebrities in general), is that his conviction doesn’t just last until the next big party. Outside last September’s MTV Video Music Awards, Mos got himself arrested for performing “Dollar Day” in the street without a permit, putting on an impromptu concert to remind people of things they were starting to forget.

I can’t, however, say that Mos’ third album, True Magic, truly followed up on the creative momentum stirred from “Dollar Day.” As I said above, this was cranked out a year after New Danger, and Mos cared so little about its success that he didn’t actually produce any liner notes or anything for it. If you go to your local Best Buy, you will likely find it in a clear plastic case, nothing but a disc and a price tag. And, after showing potential with Black Jack Johnson, he ditched it for True Magic. Again, it’s listenable because of Mos’ talent (he did get a Grammy nomination for “Undeniable,” after all), but let’s just say I’ll be expecting a lot more out of him next time around, when he’s on an indy label and not realizing that his success would put money in pockets of the suits at Geffen Records.

Mos Def and Talib Kweli will always be thought of in the same boat, and I doubt it bothers either of them too much (other than in the context of the roughly 14,526,353 times they’ve heard “So when are you gonna put out another Black Star album?” in the last 8 years), and while I could have pretty easily made a “Primer” about each of them individually, I figured that accentuating their differences best highlights their relative strengths. These two Brooklyn MC’s are the best hip hop has to offer and have been for quite a while. One is a charismatic presence, one is a workhorse. Both of them respect hip hop’s history and constantly tinker with ways to move hip hop forward.