Last Night: Black Star (Mos Def and Talib Kweli) at House of Blues

Black Star, Playdough, Topic
House of Blues
September 7, 2011

Better than: being blown away by a firearm.

Although each has enjoyed a remarkable solo career as one of the most important names in hip-hop today, Mos Def and Talib Kweli are perhaps most loved when together as that unstoppable force known as Black Star. 

And, last night, the two took their show to the House of Blues, only the second stop on their tour after the two did the summer festival circuit as a part of the Rock the Bells series. 

To say that Dallas caught them at a great time would be understatement of the most severe magnitude.

The pleasant weather was probably a necessity for this one to be as enjoyable as it was, with the House of Blues main room already approaching capacity by the time that local opener Topic took the stage. But before the music even started, the giddy chatter that infected the room foreshadowed a night to remember. The attentive audience gave Topic a surprisingly warm reception as he professionally ambled through a 15-minute set of fly-talkin' emceeing. He showed an artistic range that neatly included both a party vibe as well as a deeply developed introspection. When he stepped off the stage, the crowd seemed impressed; Topic definitely stunned a few people.

Playdough came next, delivering a solid half-hour and proving to the room what many around here have known for quite some time: Dude can spit. The Arlington native has been plying his trade for over a decade, and his polish was apparent. Seeing the way that he controlled the crowd (with the backing of DJ Sean P) made me wonder why he hasn't been picked for more local shows of this caliber. His set's highlight came with "My Cadillac," a cut from his latest release, Hotdoggin'.

But, even though the two openers both delivered on a night that promised earth-shattering hip-hop, their efforts were soon thrown out the window. The audience was in near hysterics by the time the curtain pulled back for the Black Star set. The buzz only grew when it was revealed that Beat Junkie and DJ legend J. Rocc would be playing a set to stir the crowd just a bit more before the headliners took the stage. He kept the energy sky high, running through a brusing series of bangers that drew screams with each record drop.

Twenty minutes later, a well-dressed Black Star took the stage. Each sported a tie, Kweli opting for the vest and Ascot cap to boot. 

An aside: After enduring a tumultuous adolescence that came complete with over-the-top jewelry, cars and women, hip-hop seemed destined to devolve to a point that being a rapper pretty much was the same as being a gangster. The 1990s saw the genre at a crossroads, groping toward the edges of culture trying to find an identity that was distinctively its own. 

Enter Mos Def and Talib Kweli. 

When the two rappers linked up to release 1998's Mos Def and Talib Kweli Are Black Star, each was a relative unknown pining to release a meaningful solo disc. But upon meeting and discovering a kindred admiration for the elemental and musical roots of hip-hop, the two decided collaboration was in order. The result was one of the decade's most important releases. Black Star leveled the world of hip-hop in a way that few acts have been able to before or since. Both aesthetically and thematically, that album -- the only full-length that the two would ever produce together -- champions history, optimism and Blackness in a way that is uplifting to any audience. To say that they saved hip-hop is not exactly to exaggerate. 

That may be why so many people at thet House of Blues were so emotionally into their set, which consisted of a front-to-back re-telling of the Black Star album with a few tracks off of each rapper's solo tossed in for good measure. The audience sang along to nearly every word, especially to favorites "Re: Definition," "Brown Skin Lady" and "Respiration." 

The performances were solid, as expected, with Mos showing off his singing chops and Kweli being his fiery, articulate self. He actually seemed to get more lyrically precise as the night wore on. The only slight lull in the action came when the two decided to go freestyle over a couple Madlib beats. Serviceable, yes, but it's clear that it's not the real strength for either emcee these days. 

But, despite that, each rapper was gigantic in his own right. 

So much of the Black Star essence is wrapped up in the origins of hip-hop, and they paid proper homage to their roots, paying tribute to Slick Rick, Gil-Scott Heron, Boogie Down Productions, J. Dilla and even Muhammad Ali during the set. 

At the end of the last track from Black Star and after about an hour on stage, the two stepped off for their encore cheer. They delivered such a solid package that the audience proably would have been satisfied with the show ending then. 

Shockingly, a 10-song encore came next, driving their total set time to around the 100-minute mark. They got the chance to flex some more solo stuff (and some Reflection Eternal for Kweli), getting huge crowd reaction from "Move Somtethin'," "Get By" and the show's closer "UMI Says." 

Mos Def and Talib Kweli offered a return to something pure last night -- a return to the earthen roots of hip-hop. 

Black Star is music for people that not only love hip-hop, but who live hip-hop. Last night, we were all so alive. 

Critic's Notebook
Personal Bias:
It's impossible to be biased because Black Star is the best, duh. 

Random Note: Upon an emotional performance of "UMI Says," an introspective assessment of a man taking stock of his worth as a person, Talib Kweli quickly returned the mood to jovial as he ended the set with a loud and unexpected bellow of "sexual chocolate!" Classic. 

By The Way: Yes, I'm sure you've heard by now that Mos Def is retiring his name at the end of the year. This is definitely still fresh on his mind: he introduced himself at the show's start as "Mos Def, for the time being," and made reference to his "otherwise known as" name in one of his freestyles. 

Set List: 
1) Astronomy (8th Light)
2) This Means You
3) Definition
4) Re: Definition
5) Auditorium
6) Children's Story
7) Brown Skin Lady
8) The Blast
9) B Boys Will B Boys
10) K.O.S. (Determination)
11) Hater Players
12) Madlib freestyle 1
13) Madlib freestyle 2
14) Respiration
15) Thieves in the Night
16) Twice Inna Lifetime
17) Supreme Supreme
18) History
19) Mathematics
20) ??
21) Never Been In Love
22) Supermagic
23) Move Somethin'
24) Casa Bey
25) Get By
26) UMI Says

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