Black Star’s legendary MCs revisit their legacy

Mos Def and Talib Kweli (seen here in New York in 2007) performed solo and together at the House of Blues on Sunday. Mos Def and Talib Kweli (seen here in New York in 2007) performed solo and together at the House of Blues on Sunday. (Oscar Hidalgo/The New York Times/File 2007)
By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / October 5, 2010

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There’s an awkward tug-of-war inherent in any performance involving Mos Def and Talib Kweli, the tension between what the audience wants to hear and what the two rappers want to perform. They’ve morphed — or matured — in the 12 years since they first came together as Black Star.

When he took the stage Sunday night at the House of Blues, Kweli looked the part of a rapper’s rapper: fitted cap (Houston Astros, no pandering), red button-down. He introduced new music from his forthcoming album — “I don’t even know the words,’’ he said, “but we’re having a good time.’’ He performed his latest work with producer Hi-Tek.

A pop culture junkie, he dropped “authenticious’’ in a sentence, a nod to one of the funnier moments in “The Town.’’ He paid homage to Boston’s hip-hop forefather Guru, reciting the lyrics to “Mass Appeal’’ then recalling memories from the times they toured together. “This what Guru used to do with the mike,’’ he said. Then he tossed it from one hand to the other like it was a basketball or a hot potato. He was enjoying running through the less traveled portions of his catalog, where songs like “Midnight Hour’’ are tucked away.

But when piano keys on “Get By’’ first started to hopscotch, the hands in the crowd immediately reached for the ceiling — an obligation to honor a classic record (“Quality’’), trumping the newer material.

From the moment he meandered onto the stage, Mos Def’s eccentricities were front and center. In a navy blue suit, red necktie barred to his short-sleeved white button-down, he was dressed like Dilbert in a kufi. His look was more Chess Records than Rawkus.

He drifted almost exclusively through the songs from his 2009 album, “Ecstatic,’’ sometimes rapping, sometimes crooning as he bopped the way someone would if they spent their entire youth with their eyes clothes-pinned open watching Michael Jackson videos.

Still, his audience grew antsy. He danced through “Life in Marvelous Times,’’ “Priority,’’ and “Auditorium.’’ He threw a verse out a cappella. He performed Ski Beatz’s horn-fueled “Cream of the Planet.’’ But he was beholden to his landmark debut album, “Black on Both Sides,’’ and even when he performed “Hip Hop’’ there was an obligation still to Black Star.

Ultimately, Kweli returned and they sped into Black Star classics, “Definition’’ and “Definition:Re.’’ Not without some sarcasm, though. At the end of “Respiration’’ Mos, tongue in cheek, sang the opening lines from an old Wayans Brother sitcom, “We’re brothers. We’re happy and we’re singing and we’re colored.’’

Even with an obvious apex, the show didn’t end with a bang so much as it dissolved like a late-night party where the last stragglers say goodbye four and five times. The first time, Mos pointed to both DJs for applause, then pointed to the crowd and finally pointed to himself, clasping his hands and taking a bow.

He then hopped on the drums and performed “Quiet Dog (Bite Hard).’’ He brought Kweli back on stage and posed in back-to-back B-Boy stances, one last photo op. He then went into a song he rarely performs, “Perfect Timing,’’ a hidden gem in the murky water that was his “True Magic’’ album.

Then, he went back and splashed drums over Jon Brion’s “Row.’’ Finally, he grabbed his suit jacket and wore it only on his shoulders. He fixed his kufi atop his head, clasped his hands and bowed yet again. He waved the way Gandhi would have and then walked off the stage.

Julian Benbow can be reached at


At: House of Blues, Sunday