Twenty years ago, Talib Kweli and Mos Def released ‘Black Star’, an album that was as much monumental celebration of everything hip hop as it was a signal achievement of an era on its way out. That era, the Golden Age of hip hop, gets dated from the late eighties to the mid to late nineties, and was a time of incredible diversity in hip hop: gangsta rap aired alongside conscious hip hop; Outkast had a couple of hit songs, but so did the Fresh Prince. There seemed to be room for everybody.
What makes ‘Black Star’ stand out, even twenty years later, is it’s intentional historicity. You can feel a certain amount of de Tocqueville and certainly Whitman in the observational and literary skill from each of the emcees, but that’s not quite right. Better is how the album evokes--and often quotes--James Baldwin, Angela Davis and Toni Morrison to craft a vision of hip hop and America that gives it the curious, and rare, quality of being in its time, but not of it.