Personal Soundtrack

16 Feb


The Song

Respiration by Black Star

“Respiration” begins with a few bars of Mos Def rapping over a chiming sample, and has your head nodding slowly before the beat even kicks in.  From then on, you’re in a different world, a dream-like urban landscape populated by sharply intelligent rhymes.  This is a classic song from a classic hip-hop duo, representing many of the things that the genre can be when the artists love what they’re doing.  The beat is laid-back but banging at the same time, providing an expansive sonic playground for the MCs to bounce over with their lyrical gymnastics.  Common joins the Black Star party to add some wordy rhymes that fit right in with the overall vibe of the group.  The beat is evocative, the skilled verses have weight, and the song stays with you long after the record’s over.

Black Star was/is an underground rap group comprised of Mos Def and Talib Kweli – a pairing that was seemingly too good to be true, because they only dropped one album in 1998 before going their seperate ways.  The beauty of Black Star was that both Mos and Talib are incredibly talented and complementary artists – they seemed as though they were fated to perform together, and combined they represented a hip-hop vision that couldn’t have come from anyone else.  Talib was always a bit more wordy and technical with his rhymes, while Mos was always great at expanding the sound of hip-hop into different genres, so that it became a vast collage of every piece of music you might hear while walking along a Brooklyn street on a summer night.  “Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star” brought these strengths together in a masterful album that is thought-provoking, soulful, funky, and essential hip-hop.

The Activity

It’s a warm NYC night on some vague date in the middle of summer, and the city is buzzing.  It’s far too hot in your apartment, so you decide to head up to your roof to get some fresh air.  Seems like most of the other people in your building had the same idea, as a small gathering has broken out on your building’s rooftop patio.  There are all kinds of people mingling about, taking it easy in the night’s heat, and the feeling couldn’t be more welcoming.  The roof has become an island amid the twinkling lights of the city skyline surrounding you, and you know you can stay for awhile.  No one’s really caring to judge up here, and you sit down to accept the joint that the old couple from down the hall have wordlessly offered.  The cute new roommates from two floors down have just arrived with some fresh bottles of wine, so you figure soon would be a good time to expand upon those awkward elevator conversations.  For now, someone puts an old hip-hop record on, and the beats groove out to join the rest of the night’s ever-changing soundscape.  You finally have the chance to do what Black Star implored you to do:  ‘Escuchela…la ciudad respirando.’


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