You could very possibly make the argument that no two MCs are more universally acclaimed than Mos Def and Talib Kweli. Certainly no two MCs are more beloved by white people, judging by the makeup of the crowd in attendance at Toronto’s Kool Haus last night.
My attendance at the show was very last minute, and thrown into question when news broke of a shooting outside the venue the night before. But it takes more than that to dissuade fans of the real hip-hop, and Mos and Talib did not disappoint.
Rap shows can always be a bit of a crap shoot. Will the act try to shoehorn in a live band, will they just rap over a laptop piped through the PA, a mixture of the two? All three options can yield transcendent and lackluster results. Blackstar opted for a straight DJ setup, which lead to the sound being a little muddy at times, and the two MCs had frequent requests for the soundman, but the laidback, confident energy they brought to the stage captivated the hundreds in attendance.
Since releasing their debut full length in 1998, Mos Def and Talib Kweli have grown into two of the most confident and professional rappers working today, and that professionalism both helps and hinders. The two-hour performance moved a quick clip and never sagged, the song selection was a perfect mix of old and new, solo and collaborative, but it did feel at times like the proceedings were a little over rehearsed. There wasn’t much by way of banter or spontaneity, aside from some typical rap show crowd interaction. But really, were any of us there for the unexpected, or did we want this rare tandem appearance from both of them to give us the songs we loved without any cute tricks?
And the songs we loved came fast and furious, starting with ‘Fix Up,’ from the much rumoured new BlackStar album, through crowd favourites like Definition and Respiration, to beloved solo joints from each member like Get By and Never Been in Love from Talib, or History, Supermagic and Umi Says from Mos. Whatever your preference, each member had you covered.
But if I had one perfect moment, even if it too wasn’t spontaneous, it was the show’s conclusion: after officially closing the show with Umi Says, the DJ dropped ‘WildLife’ from the New Tony Williams Lifetime [a song my real Canuck hip-hop heads will recognize as the sample from Halifax crew Universal Soul’s ‘Way Back in the Day‘] and Mos just wilded out for the next six minutes. Dancing, air guitaring, air drumming, spinning, smiling, feeling the music so deeply you couldn’t help but feel what he was feeling. I’d seen footage of him doing it in Seattle the week before, but to be that close to him in the crowd and see the joy on his face, listening to a song he’s heard hundreds of times before, was really a beautiful moment.
Check out their performance of the Reflection Eternal classic ‘The Blast’ below. I apologize for the sideways footage during the first half, but I rarely use my phone for much, so I had no idea itwouldn’t correct the perspective automatically. This technology befuddles us old folks.