Just before the concert, the beloved Maple Leafs lost to the nefarious Senators 5-2, allowing two empty net goals in a boring, uninspired performance. The game was enough to place any warm-blooded Torontonian in a pit of despair. Thankfully, the sheer energy of Black Star was more than enough cause to forget our woes. It was that good.
The show’s setlist wasn’t surprising, considering the entire Black Star catalogue is one album, Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star. It was essentially the album in order, occasionally interspersed with choice tracks from each rapper’s – Mos Def and Talib Kweli – solo albums. Still, every classic (“Definition”, “RE:DEFinition”, “Children’s Story”, “Respiration”) made the crowd go nuts. Kool Haus, the venue, was more packed than normal, and I had the distinct impression everyone there was a huge fan; when Mos Def asked, “Who out there actually owns our album?” people weren’t just being polite when their hands shot up.
Watch “Definition” here:
When big name American hip hop artists play in Canada, there’s a lurking suspicion that they don’t get as excited for the show. It’s not an inferiority complex, it’s just the same reason why it’s better to see the Tragically Hip in rural Ontario than somewhere in the States. But it was evident from the beginning that the two rappers had as much fun as the crowd. Their energy never waned. Actually, Mos Def yelled and danced with increased frequency as the show went on. Their enthusiasm was palpable and contagious.
Noteworthy too was their dress: they made collared shirts and ties at once dignified and hip, appropriate for aging emcees (in a notoriously young genre) who aren’t in denial about their age. It was a throwback to the dapper professionalism of the 40s jazz musicians who wore suits on stage. Seeing them in that garb, rapping positively about philosophy and empowering women (“Brown Skinned Lady”) sufficiently counters the lingering stereotype that all rappers are just paper-chasin’ delinquent misogynists. Black Star proves you can be a rapper and a positive role model, and they’re far from alone in this regard.
Their 80′s-era light show was seriously old-school. “Black Star” was spelled out in large circular pixels, and spun clockwise in front of images of a generic city skyline. It was Nintendo graphics, conspicuously Luddite, as if the group wanted the benefits of having lights on stage without possibly being accused of using fancy modern trickery. It was funny and charming.
But their antics, their dress, and the production value wouldn’t matter if the beats and rhymes were lacking. They weren’t. The beats varied slightly from the album, but the rapping was constant reinvention. It’s funny when you know the raps by heart and expect they’re written in stone, like there’s a definitive version, but Mos Def and Talib just have too much rhythm to do it the same way. Every change of phrasing was so exciting and authoritative that it actually seemed like an improvement from the album. It was all the more masterful because they did it so nonchalantly, like it was an easy, every day occurrence. They can’t help but rap so well.
Years ago, I saw Talib solo and was disappointed. He literally seemed out of breath at times. His only stumble on Saturday happened during the a capella encore, marring an otherwise masterful rap. Overall Talib was great, but Mos Def is unquestionably better. Fair enough: Mos Def is the best rapper alive, maybe better than anyone dead. Please, if you disagree write here who you think is better. On Saturday, everyone I spoke to at the show agreed the tandem couldn’t have been in better form. I wish I could say the same about the Leafs.
Astronomy (8th Light)
This Means You
Children’s Story (Slick Rick Cover)
Brown Skin Lady
B Boys Will B Boys/Check The Rhyme (A Tribe Called Quest Cover)
Thieves In The Night
Twice Inna Lifetime
Watch “Respiration” here:
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