IN 1998, HIPHOP was reeling from the deaths of Pac and Big, tragic twin towers that fell in the fall of 1996 and spring of 1997, respectively; all of a sudden, all the champagne of the jiggy-rap hegemony went flat. In reaction, '98 felt like a much-needed blast of vitality—literally the life after the recent deaths—with a hot new crop of acts like DMX, Cam'ron, Noreaga, Canibus, and the Lox providing some very hardcore new blood. On the flip, foundational crews like Gang Starr and Brand Nubian delivered some old-head perspective.
Amid all this, there was Mos Def and Talib Kweli Are Black Star. Two emcees: Mos, the rising underground luminary (a rarity, in that most newcomers that pop up on De La Soul albums are never heard from again) and Talib, the unknown quantity, the emcee from the group Reflection Eternal, the guy with the name that some found—and incredibly, still find—rather challenging. If you were paying attention, their album's release felt truly seismic. In retrospect, its impact was bigger than just beats and rhymes—strictly speaking, there were arguably much stronger album-length examples of both to be found on such 1998 treasures as Aquemini, Capitol Punishment, and even Rhythm-al-ism.
Yet it was Black Star that seemed to have a cult following before it even hit stores, based on the crew's love-first Brooklyn b-boyisms, their Afrocentric Garvey-checking name, and not least of all, their label Rawkus Records, the influential late '90s NYC indie-rap stronghold and lifestyle movement. The first piece of new rap vinyl I bought was the first hint of Black Star: Reflection Eternal's "Fortified Live" single, where Mos Def sips "wishing-well water imported from Pluto." Just as much as I studied that song, I studied the B&W photograph on the cover, drawing energy about what it meant to be black, hiphop, and independent as fuck right then. Black Star's aesthetics in turn helped define a whole new wave of so-called alternative rap.
Musically speaking, at its best Black Star was life-affirmingly warm, poetic, and BK to the fullest. There was the cleansing gospel of tracks like "Thieves in the Night" and "Respiration," the JanSport subway-tunnel bangers "Definition" and "RE:DEFinition," and the lovely "Brown Skin Lady," a sunny paean to the melanized fairer sex. There were also a handful of sleepy, less-than-stellar tracks (as Slick Rick covers go, they were no Snoop Dogg), but those songs did little to dim the Star's shine, and many fans hailed it as a classic, no questions asked. The only question that would be asked, over and over, as Mos Def and Talib separately went on to make the best music of their lives in the coming years, would be, "Is there ever going to be another Black Star album?"
After 13 years of one-off collabs, shows, and rumors, Mos (now known as Yasiin Bey) and Talib have finally guaranteed a new Black Star album will drop next year. The Madlib-produced "Fix Up" sounded good when premiered on The Colbert Report, of all places, and fans seem either dismissive or cautiously optimistic; it's still just as "dangerous to be an emcee," but it's been well over a decade since anyone had a real feel for the two's chemistry. So wish, if you will, upon the Star's rise to prominence once again, so that they may shine their light for the world to see.