Before Kanye West shamelessly flaunted his outsider status and materialism in the same breath, before Common won an Academy Award, and before Mos Def became Yasiin Bey, hip-hop trekked a wildly different terrain. A palpable dichotomy between the kings of Bad Boy and Death Row and underdogs like The Roots and Jurassic 5 defined the landscape. It was in this atmosphere that two young Brooklyn upstarts, Mos Def and Talib Kweli, joined forces as Black Star and released an album whose creative merits and socially-conscious leanings resonated with a legion of fans burned out by the East Coast-West Coast drama, as well as the aesthetics of what labels thought was most profitable.
That was 17 years ago to the day, and the album, “Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star,” remains timeless. Now, Mos Def is the elusive Yasiin Bey, perhaps better known in the public sphere for his big screen résumé than for his time as a trailblazing emcee and poet. Talib Kweli is now a fiercely independent rapper and thought leader, penning essays about the modern music industry and standing on the front lines in Ferguson while continuing to prolifically produce material. But even though these two are still close and creatively linked, this album stays their only formal statement as Black Star—a hallmark of a time when they weren’t classic and revered artists, but the vanguard of a cultural change that would shift hip-hop forever.
Celebrate 17 years with the singles “Definition” and “Respiration” (featuring a then-less-famous Common on what might be his best guest verse of all time) and share your Black Star memories in the comments.