Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star vs. De La Soul’s Stakes Is High. Which Is Better?

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One year ago, Ambrosia For Heads launched a debate among its readers seeking to answer one of Hip-Hop’s most hotly-contested questions: who is the greatest MC of all time? “Finding The GOAT MC” lasted between September 2014 and May 2015, engaging millions of readers and ultimately producing its winner, as determined by hundreds of thousands of voters. Now, “Finding The GOAT” returns to ask a new question: what is the greatest of all time Hip-Hop album?

“Finding The GOAT Album” will consider 120 albums from three individual eras (40 in each), with options for wild card and write-in candidates. You and your vote will decide which album goes forward, and which one leaves the conversation. While there will no doubt be conversation between family and friends (virtual and real), only votes cast in the voting tool below will be counted, so use the power of your click.

Following yesterday’s (November 5) Death Certificate vs. Elif4zaggin battle, this is one of the most intertwined matches thus far. De La Soul’s Stakes Is High proved to be a major Hip-Hop archetype album. Mos Def, who was in large, introduced on the Top 15-charting LP, agreed with what the big brothers were saying. In turn, when he and Talib Kweli made Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star, they were soldiers in solidarity of the same struggle to keep Rap creative, interesting, attached to its racial and social roots, and perhaps most importantly: non-violent. De La Soul made their commentary before Tupac and Biggie were killed, and Black Star spoke out grieving in the years after. Thus, those forces are deeply at play in each. In the spirit of rugged, Hip-Hop competition, these LPs square off. This is a battle that requires listening, studying, and a lot of consideration, before the ballot (Click on one then click “vote”).

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Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star

In late 1998, Rawkus Records had only released one studio album (Company Flow’s Funcrusher Plus). However, the independent label had garnered acclaim in launching their Soundbombing and Lyricist Lounge series. While those seminal works would introduce the masses to many enduring MCs, Mos Def and Talib Kweli were two of the most outstanding. Two Brooklyn, New York natives, Talib and mighty Mos were both bookish talents, that were also armed with fiery courage to combat the status quo in Hip-Hop and society. After several years of appearances and 12″ singles, Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star emerged as a conceptual, full-on introduction two master MCs. The LP’s themes, sound, and gigantic messages have toppled any notions of “underground,” and dropped off two lasting stars. By ‘definition,’ it was clear that Mos and Kwe’ were interested in Hip-Hop’s well-being, survival, and connection to its roots. The LP was keenly aware of the masters (Boogie Down Productions, Double Trouble, Slick Rick), as well as appointed ambassadors of the movement that had been happening in New York City clubs, parks, and sidewalks throughout the 1990s. As the Native Tongues were on clear hiatus, Black Star united the East Coast and Midwest with a colorful collective commentary.

Although Black Star was focused on Hip-Hop as a cohesive theme in their album, there was lots more to say. “Astronomy” was a celebration of Blackness at a time when Hip-Hop appeared to be moving away from discussing race. Joined by elder group affiliate Weldon Irvine, the song used a simple, repetitive structure to allow the two MCs to make heavy commentary on social stereotypes, deceased family members, John Coltrane, and a call to revolution. Black Star elevated the conversation in their verses, giving their listeners a lot of credit in making connections, catching references, and being invested in what they might not already know. Along the way, Talib and Mos Def (who had been allies, but not a group) showed tight routines and a deeply complementary style—so much so that this group has arguably combated each’s solo works since. Songs like “Respiration,” assisted by Common, captured urban living, with a breathing city, angst, and pressures to survive the times. Black Star was never an easy listen, but a sign that two beautiful minds were facing the same crises as so many listeners. On the music side, Black Star was sparse. While Hi-Tek made several grand introductions through the singles, this challenged “the era of the beat” with drums, simple samples, and the perfect canvases for MCs to flex on. Talented producers like 88-Keys, J. Rawls, and Shawn J. Period racked credits through providing intricate tracks that enhanced the message, never eclipsing it. 1998 was such a crossroads of Hip-Hop. Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star added new perspective to the conversation. With the counted upon voices reclining, Rap music had insightful, illuminating stakeholders coming forth and making unpretentious, unadulterated statements on what going back to the culture’s motherland.

Album Number: 1
Released: September 29, 1998
Label: Rawkus/Priority Records
Highest Charting Position (Top 200): #53
Song Guests: Common, Punch ‘N’ Words, Hi-Tek, Vinia Mojica, Jane Doe, Weldon Irvine
Song Producers: (self), Hi-Tek, Da Beatminerz (Mr. Walt & Evil Dee), 88-Keys, J. Rawls, Shawn J. Period, Ge-ology

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Stakes Is High by De La Soul

Nearly three years removed from Buhloone Mindstate, De La Soul was as quiet as they had ever been, going into 1996’s Stakes Is High. Still on Tommy Boy Records, Posdnous, Dave, and Maseo’s moods had changed, as had the music they belonged to. In the midst of coastal warfare (which De La Soul would strangely find themselves loosely involved in), they made a pensive, cooling album that would prove to be the ultimate pivot between their first three albums, and their next three. In many ways, Stakes… was a deeply stripped down affair from their hard sampling, or jazzy days. What had not changed was the trio’s air-tight routines. “Supa Emcees” was a simple, self-produced beat that cleverly chased the weak-hearted off of the mic. “Itzwsoweezee” was a standout offering of the thicker, more futuristic sounds that D.L.S. was playing with. The crew still used far-reaching metaphors, playful wordplay, blended with a judgmental, melancholic view of Hip-Hop. The same trio that made the genre so exciting at the top of the decade clearly felt marginalized, bored, and disappointed with the music that occupied their spot. Quietly and effectively, Stakes Is High changed the conversation about a project that, initially, was looked at more for what was missing (Prince Paul), than what was there.

Stakes Is High was deeply subversive, and wildly effective. This album, complete with breakthrough work by Mos Def and J Dilla (as Jay Dee) would define the next 10 years of so-called “Underground Hip-Hop.” A Top 15 debut, this LP is anything but Underground. Instead, it is as fiery as Tupac was, out West, but with subliminal messages, eye-rolling commentary, and clever rhymes. The Long Island trio was literally “sick” of everything, and were courageous enough to cry foul. The group who once accessibly sampled Bob Marley, Hall & Oates, and Parliament Funkadelic was now focused on calling back to Slick Rick, Run-D.M.C., and Schoolly D. Hip-Hop was on the line, and with the art of communication becoming fast eclipsed by controversy, pageantry, and hype, De La Soul looked to see if they could flip Goliath on its backside. “Baby, Baby, Baby, Ooh Baby” poked fun at the radio fodder, showing how easy it was to make. Album closer “Sunshine” added to this, flipping a popular Commodores sample into something much deeper, breathing a hopeful, warm ending to an album that didn’t have much to smile about. What has always made De La Soul so great, besides the illustrative images, the coded language, and the complementary qualities of its members has been its complex moods. De La Soul, more than anybody, is unafraid to be happy, sad, scared, angry, and everything in between. Stakes Is High is as dense an album as people can find in the space, and it may be the album that’s least about the members of the group. Still, in 1996, the tipping point year for Hip-Hop, De La Soul gave it their all in the grand debate. It’s why they are still high-ranking elected officials of the culture 20 years later.

Album Number: 4
Released: July 2, 1996
Label: Tommy Boy Records
Highest Charting Position (Top 200): #13
Song Guests: Common, Zhané, Mos Def, Truth Enola
Song Producers: (self), J Dilla, Spearhead, DJ Ogee, Skeff Anslem

So what’s the better album? Make sure you vote above.

Related: Ambrosia For Heads’ Finding The GOAT: The Albums