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Baker's Dozen

Languages Inhabited: Teju Cole's Favourite Albums
Teju Cole , August 24th, 2016 09:28

Following the publication of his first collection of essays, Known And Strange Things, the writer and photographer pens us his own Baker's Dozen, picking "as many kinds of albums that really mattered to me as possible"


Black Star – Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star
Was 1998 the greatest year in the history of hip-hop? From my highly subjective point of view, the answer is yes. Tupac and Biggie were dead, but look at who was in the mix with great albums that year: Wu-Tang Clan, Beastie Boys, Outkast, Jay-Z, DMX, Method Man. The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill dropped in August, and Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star sent a charge down the collective spinal cord in September. Neither of those two albums has left regular play on my headphones in the almost two decades since.

Black Star was Black Star's only studio album. Mos Def (latterly Yasiin Bey) went on to highly notable solo work, as did his partner in rhyme Talib Kweli, a little less notably. But no matter. Like Miseducation, Black Star was a perfect piece and needed no sequels. Track after track leaves you breathless. Perhaps the shock of the deaths of Tupac and Biggie was part of the deep focus in the writing for albums in this period (Outkast were also in their pomp). The clarity and velocity of Talib Kweli on a track like 'Hater Players' remains unmatched, even now. Eminem's writing is largely doggerel; Kendrick Lamar is fast, and writes well, but is distinctly less musical than Kweli, and often easier to admire than to love.

Listen to Mos rap in the moody 'Thieves In The Night', with its allusions both to Toni Morrison and the Holy Bible: "Stars shine bright, but the light rarely stays on/ Same song, just remixed, different arrangement/ Put you on a yacht but they won't call it a slave ship/ Strangeness, you don't control this, you barely hold this/ Screaming 'brand new', when they just sanitized the old shit." This was music of the aftermath, but it also fostered in us a sense of how things could be. Two great Brooklyn MCs came together to produce a work of visionary genius; the production was largely by Hi-Tek, an underrated adept of the decks. Standout track: 'Respiration'.