In 1998, hip-hop history was made. Mos Def, a recently-established associate of the former Native Tongues crew, and Talib Kweli, an underground battle rapper making waves on New York’s indie rap scene, united to form Black Star, a duo who laid the blueprint for the next phase of Black power rap. With a combination of Afrocentric wisdom, esoteric literary references, and street-savvy wordplay, Black Star changed the direction of subterranean, socially-conscious rap, a precursor to the modern woke stylings of today’s rap favorites like Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole.
Funded by legendary indie rap label Rawkus Records and fueled by the righteous indignation of educated, well-read Black collegiate idealism (the duo purchased Nkiru Bookstore, cited as the oldest African-American bookstore in Brooklyn, New York, in 1998), their debut album, Mos Def And Talib Kweli Are Black Star stood in stark contrast to the era’s ultra-jiggy leanings. They rejected the “get money by any means” ethos of Puff Daddy (now better known as Sean “Diddy” Combs — aka Love), Jay-Z, and their ilk, to focus on the social — and socialist — teachings of James Baldwin, Richard Wright, and the Black Panthers. Clad in military jackets and cowrie shells, they brought their red, black, and green ethos to a hip-hop audience yearning for an alternative to shiny suits and blinged-out Rolexes.
While the group has not been active since their last tour in 2015, only making sparse special appearances, and hasn’t released an album since their 1998 debut, they remain a favorite of fans of alternative, heady rap. Those fans have plenty of reason for excitement now, though, as group member Mos Def, now known as Yasiin Bey, made a surprise appearance at a Madlib DJ set at the Ogden Theater in Denver on Saturday, announcing that the pair has been working on a new project on the eve of their first album’s 20th anniversary.
While the reason for excitement may be self-evident to some, for others, perhaps a refresher course is needed. So I’ve put together a list of ten of the best Black Star songs from across both artists’ catalogs to remind listeners what they’ve been missing out on, and hopefully, the level of quality they have to look forward to when the Brooklyn duo reunites.