Black Star (1998)
The context: The late '90s were a time of widespread fear, uncertainty, and cynicism in hip-hop. The rap world was still reeling from the unsolved murders of Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. In their absence, talent-impaired opportunists like Master P and Puff Daddy became huge stars, and hip-hop as a cultural movement and musical genre sorely lacked a sense of direction. Into this maelstrom of doubt swooped Mos Def and Talib Kweli, idealistic young men crazy, ambitious, and talented enough to think they could save hip-hop and rediscover its lost moral compass. Their ensuing album was a musical manifesto, an unmistakable statement of purpose from iconoclasts unwilling to accept the poisonous status quo.
The greatness: Kweli and Mos Def are a study in complementary contrasts. Def emerged as a brooding, deep-voiced bohemian renaissance man with a musical, liquid flow that segued effortlessly from rapping to singing and back again, while Kweli assaulted listeners' eardrums with a dense, high-pitched, rapid-fire volley of words radiating urgency and purpose. On the KRS-One and Slick Rick tributes "Re: Definition" and "Children's Stories," respectively, the duo's reverence for hip-hop's golden age comes at the expense of asserting their own voices, but elsewhere, Def and Kweli build and expand on their heroes' legacies. "Brown Skin Lady" attacked misogyny and Eurocentric beauty standards with smoothness and sensuality instead of rage, while "Hater Players" delivers a bracing reality check for the Puff Daddy contingent's blind worship of success and warped sense of ethics.
Defining song: Is there a more elegant hip-hop song than "Respiration"? The album's defining moment is one of the few rap songs that amply deserves to be called poetry, especially Def's haunting chorus:
So much on my mind that I can't recline
Blastin' holes in the night 'til she bled sunshine
Breathe in, inhale vapors from bright stars that shine
Breathe out, weed smoke retrace the skyline
Heard the bass ride out like an ancient mating call
I can't take it, y'all, I can feel the city breathin'
Chest heavin', against the flesh of the evening
Sigh before we die like the last train leaving
It's a nocturnal valentine to the life-affirming pulse of the city, a hip-hop hymn to New York as a living, breathing organism as deep, soulful and gloriously alive as hip-hop itself.