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The Immersion: Black Star, “Definition” & Discovery Through IgnorancePosted by Dharmic X on 06/28/12 | Filed under Features, Opinion, The Immersion
One day in the summer of 2006, I hit up a friend of mine on AIM. The conversation went a little something like this:
Me: Not much... What’re some good songs I should download?
Friend: “Lions of Hip-Hop” by Talib Kweli
From there, I instantly opened up the copy of Limewire I’d downloaded onto my computer and searched the song my friend recommended to me. I proceeded to download the song and eventually listen to it. I had a little difficulty understanding the lyrics (particularly of the first voice on the song), but the song had a great beat, a really energetic and catchy hook, and the second voice was charismatic and witty.
Nobody called me or my friend out for being ignorant about the name of the song (“Definition”), the artists behind it (Black Star, both Talib Kweli AND Mos Def), or even for not recognizing the song for being on an underground classic album. In fact, it was at least two years later when the truth would come to light. Listening to the Black Star album from front-to-back for the first time, I found the song that I’d fallen in love with before even entering high school and registered the fact that on this track listing, it was going by a different name than what I’d first learned.
What makes this song (and really any Black Star song) memorable is the contrast in style and delivery. “Definition” features mastery from both MCs in terms of rapid fire flow, but Mos and Talib alter the tempo in differing ways--the former employing a sing-song cadence and becoming more animated as a result, while the latter simply spacing out his words at certain points for emphasis (“The epitome of stupidity.”) The voices of the two also augment each other perfectly, something many would dismiss as an afterthought and yet is an important detail that makes this song a powerful record.
As for the plot of “Definition,” Mos and Talib weave together a masterful work of stream-of-consciousness. The way I see it, the duo dedicates their verses to describe the pitfalls and obstacles that stand in the way of them reaching the proverbial peak of the hip-hop summit as “the lions of hip-hop.” In doing so, they address issues of crime and inequality in a very blunt, conversational manner.
Take for instance, the following line from Kweli dealing with the death of a “visionary”: “Third grade teacher reading and talking about how she’d known he’d amount to nothing; neighbors like, ‘he was the quiet type,’ who’d have thought they was fronting.” The details seem mundane and boring, but that only serves to highlight the subject of the conversation, which is the death of an icon, a polarizing figure.
As an eighth grader, however, I didn’t catch this significance. I was mesmerized by the nimble wordplay and the complex syllables that it appeared both MCs were able to deliver so effortlessly. As an eighth grader, I also didn’t know the existence of the next song on the Black Star album, titled “Redefinition.” Nowadays, I prefer this song to the song before it on the album. The beat has a nice bounce to it, and the lyrics from both seem to come out more assertive. I get chills when I hear Mos open off his verse, “Lyrically handsome, come collect the king’s ransom.”
At the time, “Definition” served as an introduction to the world of “underground” or “backpack” rap that now tends to consume my life and most of my free time. It was a strong, powerful introduction that I have not forgotten over the years, and yet my introduction to Black Star lacked the introduction or background required to use this song as a springboard into a greater appreciation for the artists who gain fewer accolades than the stars and yet proceed to put out better-quality material consistently. I was still just a 14-year old kid in the city of Boston trying to understand the music my friends were listening to and more importantly, trying to find my place in the world. It took a long time before I came up with an answer to either dilemma...
(DJ Dharmic X is the host of This Culture Never Dies, 11PM-1AM Saturday on wnyu.org. Fans and haters, can follow him on Twitter and check him out on Facebook.)
See Also: The Immersion: An Early Favorite, DMX’ “X Is Coming”