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Black Star is an eloquently moody confection more for listening than for parties. The self-titled first album by the Brooklyn hip-hop duo, formed by Mos Def and Talib Kweli in the late 1990s and named for the 1920s shipping line Marcus Garvey dedicated to the global African economy, has as its main theme black identity in a time of hip-hop's paradoxical success. It is also about the pleasures of words, friendship, creative achievement and love. Several of the songs on Black Star, which was released in 1999 in the wake of the violent deaths of Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls, have a cautionary tone, but there is nothing dry about the album. The production, done by various musicians but primarily by DJ Hi-Tek, manages to be both minimalist and lush, with hints of soul, funk and acid jazz.
Black Star is superb from start to finish, but "Respiration" — which features Mos Def, Talib Kweli and guest emcee Common — has been a kind of personal anthem for me for a long time now. It is the song that best encapsulates my experience of America: that of being young, black and sensitive to New York City's stories, visible and otherwise.
The voices on "Respiration" have become part of my mental weather. They have been as steady to me as the night and the air; we know a song has hit a special mark when it can bear such incessant repetition. "Respiration" is a song about New York, where I live: love for the city, wisdom about the city, an inventory of the city, a celebration of nighttime in the city. It is poetic in the best possible sense: it gives exact language to intuition.
What we hear, first, is a gentle voice, a woman's voice. It whispers, three times, in Spanish, "Escuchela, la ciudad respirando." Then, in the first verse, Mos Def sets a scene worthy of a film director: "The new moon, rose high in the crown of the metropolis / shining like, 'Who on top of this'? / People were tussling, arguing, bustling / gangsters of Gotham hardcore hustling." This is a song that reminds us that New York has not just a nighttime but also a nightlife. It persists well past sunset. Mos Def, "wrestling with words and ideas / seeking what will transmit," celebrates the workers, the sleepers, the thieves, the corrupt cops, the colossal skyscrapers, the preposterous cost of living through the night. The song makes pithy commentary about the Big Apple: "The shiny Apple is bruised but sweet / and if you choose to eat / you could lose your teeth." But life is for living, and "Respiration" enjoys New York City's variety in a way reminiscent of that other great list-maker of New York trades, Walt Whitman. Mos Def, aware of his role as a poet of the city, closes out his verse with this: "My narrative rose to explain its existence, amid the harbor lights which remain in the distance."
Talib Kweli — his voice a measure higher-pitched than Mos Def's, his rapping style faster — interlocks puns and rhymes at worrisome and exhilarating speed. He goes deeper into the question of the night and its deceptions, firing off one salvo at the oblivious police — "The beats work the beats but the beats we be making" — and another at misguided rappers: "Swearing you got pull when the only pull you got is the wool under your eyes." In one remarkable section, he packs just about as much as it is possible to pack into 15 seconds of music: "Looking the skies for God / what you see besides the smog / is broken dreams flying away on the wings of the obscene. / Thoughts that people put in the air / places where you could get murdered over a glare, / but everything is fair. / It's a paradox we call reality / but keeping it real won't make you a victim of abnormal normality."
It's the rare rap number that can survive transcription to the page. "Respiration" succeeds, abundantly, astonishingly. Its full power, of course, is auditory, when the booming breakbeat propels the words, and a call-and-response synth figure with a matching funk guitar sample supports them. But, shorn of musical accompaniment, we also recognize that these are the best words in the best order. The meaning of a good poem, like that of a good song, is not settled: a song, a meeting place for the experience of the musician and that of the listener, makes you wonder, "How did you know what was in my mind?"
The chorus of "Respiration" brings out just this kind of wonder:
"So much on my mind that I can't recline, / blasted holes in the night till she bled sunshine. / Breathe in: inhale vapors from bright stars that shine. / Breathe out: weed smoke retrace the skyline. / Hey, don't the bass ride out like an ancient mating call? / I can't take it y'all / I could feel the city breathing / chest heaving against the flesh of the evening / kiss the eyes goodbye / I'm on the last train leaving."
Countless times in the past decade, as I have set out into the city on my night walks or returned home on the late train or sat on a rooftop watching the lights of Brooklyn or Manhattan or Queens, this was the music in my ear. It has taught me something about how to love a city's complicated dreams. And the song has life in it yet, a few hundred more listens, at least.
Teju Cole is a writer, art historian, street photographer and a Distinguished Writer in Residence at Bard College. He was born in the U.S. to Nigerian parents, raised in Nigeria and now lives in Brooklyn. He is the author of Every Day is for the Thief and Open City and a contributor to the New York Times, Qarrtsiluni, Chimurenga, the New Yorker, Transition, Tin House, A Public Space, the Atlantic and Granta. He is currently at work on a book-length non-fiction narrative of Lagos, and on a Twitter project called small fates.