When Mos Def and Talib Kweli first debuted Black Star, the words to their songs felt like distilled lyrics written in sunrise ciphers on Brooklyn-bound trains. But when I caught up with Mos and Talib at DC’s 9:30 club, something was way off track.
Hip-hop as a genre sometimes struggles to maintain its freshness live. Between the Sony reps pushing their handheld game-system and people holding up Blackberries in place of lighters, it seemed that Black Star, once defined by their underground hip-hop consciousness, had become vulnerable to the same corporate and traditionalist forces that gnaw at the heart of other genres.
When Jurassic 5 hit it big with their return-to-the-roots/conservative philosophy, their success signaled the end of an era in hip-hop. As Wynton Marsalis normalized jazz, excessive deference to traditional form made hip-hop too easily definable. J5 suggested that they were merely returning to the golden age of hip-hop, but conservatism now endangers the development of the music.
In defining its golden age and delineating the culture as breaking, graffiti writing, and MC’ing — hip-hop is now stuck in its own frame. When Black Star first emerged, Talib and Mos fit the picture perfectly. Now, that picture is a caricature, constraining the evolution of their music.
When Talib sang, “Soon as the director says action you start fakin’ / I start breakin,” it was as if by break-dancing for the camera, Talib was reenacting a prescribed hip-hop model. If these lyrics passed muster when they were written, they no longer do. You can’t just say lines like that, you have to demonstrate your dedication to them by maintaining the boundlessness that they imply. You have to keep it undeniably real. With the onset of success, and its embrace, this becomes a nearly impossible task.
When I first heard the Black Star lyrics, “Where were you the day hip-hop died? Is it too early to mourn? Is it too late to rise?,” I was excited that someone recognized the death of hip-hop. I thought they were going to do something about it. When Talib and Mos posed the same questions, I wondered: Is it too early to mourn Black Star’s original vision? Is it too optimistic to keep waiting for their second album to drop?
Hip-hop is stuck in the past. If Mos and Talib (perhaps the MCs most ready to maintain the vitality and creativity of their forebears) are to rekindle the fire, these still-young performers will have to shatter the mirror that binds them and disengage hip-hop from “hip-hop” — a process already begun by Mos Def, though not obvious this time around.