A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders vs. Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star. Which Is Better?

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.

A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders contends as one of the group’s finest hours, the perfect balance of accelerated production and beautifully insightful lyrics. As emerging voices of the so-called Underground Hip-Hop movement, Talib Kweli and mighty Mos Def were influenced by and competed with the legends upon their Rawkus Records low-profile, self-titled debut. Black Star’s grassroots album toppled Native Tongues royalty in De La Soul’s Stakes Is High by a strong margin. Tribe’s  album ousted fellow legends Gang Starr’s Hard To Earn out of the bracket. Which one is better (click one then click “vote”)?


Midnight Marauders by A Tribe Called Quest

– First Round Winner (against Gang Starr’s Hard To Earn, 70% to 30%)

By 1993, Hip-Hop groups were hyper-aware of their legacy, as they challenged the laws of gravity. Coming out of the 1980s, few groups beyond Run-D.M.C. and De La Soul proved to be capable of three great albums in their catalog. And even those were not without arguments. A Tribe Called Quest, who broke in during 1990, weighed their winning streak entering Midnight Marauders, and won tenfold. The album followed the lauded Low End Theory with a carefully packaged, highly-cohesive feel and theme. The Jazz elements and breezy narratives continued, as Tribe remained ahead of the curve.

Midnight Marauders demonstrated growth for Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, and Ali Shaheed Muhammad. However, in expanding, the Native Tongues found the spotlight—in their transformative first Top 10 album. Single “Electric Relaxation” beautifully merged Jazz and Electronic sources, for the perfect seduction. Cleverly sliced melodies drove the album, with groovy cuts like “Oh My God,” “Lyrics To Go,” and “We Can Get Down.” At a time when Jazz-Rap was a common theme on both coasts, A.T.C.Q. traveled to the next dimension and left no road map. The album featured smart, compelling lyrics that were far from preachy or taking themselves too seriously. Bars alluded to race relations, a changing New York City, and pressures of the Rap game, but songs seemingly didn’t. This LP was a casual, cohesive listen—which made it deeply accessible to the non-Rap consumer. The Abstract’s musings, Phife’s whimsicality, and Ali’s finest scratch clinic made A Tribe Called Quest one of the most consistent Hip-Hop acts of the first half of the 1990s. As the clock struck twelve, Midnight Marauders may be Tribe’s finest hour.

Album Number: 3
Released: November 9, 1993
Label: Jive Records
Highest Charting Position (Top 200): #8 (certified gold, January, 1994; certified platinum, January 1995)
Song Guests: Dave (p/k/a Trugoy), Large Professor, Busta Rhymes, Raphael Wiggins
Song Producers: (self), Large Professor, Skeff Anslem


Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star

– First Round Winner (against De La Soul’s Stakes Is High, 61% to 39%)

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

So which album belongs in the 1990s Top 10? Make sure you vote above.

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