Back in the 90’s hip-hop was finally establishing itself as a concrete art form with more than enough substance to justify its existence. Artists were creating the music that they wanted to make and more often than not, poetically depicting the harsh lifestyles of the hood or experimenting with lyricism. All of that is fine and dandy and actually thrust the art into what many will defend as the golden age of hip-hop, but being concerned with progression, few were actually reflecting on its current state. This all changed in 1999 when two MC’s decided to postpone their debut solo projects and create one of the most eye-opening hip-hop albums of all time. Mos Def and Talib Kweli effectively took on the role of street prophets, laying down some of the most critical and lyrically sensical rap of the decade.
They didn’t just make songs about street violence or the value of money, but rather critiqued artistic glorifications and depictions of them, turning hip-hop on its head. From the very first track, save the intro, the duo bonded over the word black being used as a term of endearment rather than a limitation. It contains bass-heavy, funky guitar strings and impeccable flows from both Def and Kweli. Def swings the chorus with subtle back-up vocals from Kweli and it solidifies the equation for the remainder for the remainder of the album.
Then, on ‘Definition’, we get two rappers standing up for the hood as examples of what you can become, rather than simply reflecting on their rough upbringing. “Best alliance in Hip-hop”. Their words, also mine. I have yet to hear a hip-hop duo top the palpable chemistry between these two verbal acrobats. Their analogies bleed the wisdom of two guys who could deliver hip-hop-based sermons, “Me and Kweli close like Bethlehem and Nazareth.”
The boom-bap style reflects that of the classic and lethal combination of KRS-One and DJ Premier. Here though, it is Cincinatti-based producer Hi-Tek that helms a majority of the production. Its combination of rumbling bass guitars, snappy drums and and other low tones, roots the project’s sound in the years preceding it. The simple, organic tones allow the two MC’s to explode with multisyllabic rhyme schemes, occasionally even pushing out grocery lists of rhymable words one after the next like Kweli on ‘Brown Skin Lady’,
“You fruitful, beautiful, smart, lovable, huggable,
doable like art, suitable to be part,
of my life.”
Coming out at the end of a decade that showcased so much diversity in the genre afforded them the opportunity to take a little bit of everything from the musical buffet and put in on the plate that was their album. The colorfully playful, 80’s style that Eric B and Rakim came up on is resurrected on ‘B Boys Will B Boys’. They also allowed visions of the future to infiltrate their sound on the highly electronic synths of ‘Hater Players’. The album’s main exhibit is the lyrical proficiency and consciousness of Kweli and Mos Def. Its poetry that can be picked apart and listened to differently each time you hear it. Even sitting here now, realizing that this came out a ridiculous fifteen years ago, it is made all the more astounding that it is as eye-opening and as sonically pleasing as just about anything I have ever heard. Bar for bar, this is one of the greatest album’s of all-time.