Updated: Dec 8, 2019
"Respiration": Black Star
Production: Hi Tek
Album: Mos Def and Talib Kweli are Black Star
There are few songs vivid enough to drag you out your bedroom and into the world that the artists build. Respiration is one of those rare tracks so masterfully written and delivered that you feel yourself fighting for breath against the backdrop of a polluted New York skyline. The song begins with an extract from the celebrated but dated hip hop documentary, Style Wars, where writer Sheve describes his latest piece on the side of a New York subway carriage. The skit is an abstract for the music to come literally painting the world of vice permeating through all levels of society from insider trading to gun violence to gentrification. Fading in there is a gorgeously raspy refrain by an unknown Hispanic woman wafting over the instrumental like smoke.
‘Escuchela la ciudad respirando’
Look! The city is breathing. The words are phrased as a surprise, they are whispered over menacing guitar and piano lines giving way to an intense drum beat by the highly experienced Hi Tek.
There is something almost Dante-esque about Mos Def’s opening verse the way it brings the audience down into a hellish city scape where you have to ‘blast holes in the night’ for the sky to ‘bleed sunshine.’ It is a world of rough edges and characters beating their knuckles against the fast paced rhythm of life, an energy that endures in Talib Kweli’s verse, which explores justice in the chaos of the concrete jungle. The law of the city is self preservation where loyalty is thrown away for a chance to survive.
Common then brings the song home with a parallel of his upbringing in Chicago’s South side.
‘On the amen corner I stood/ looking at my former hood/ felt the spirit in the wind/ knew my friend was gone for good.’
His verse eulogises his home, paints a ghostly scene of former residents moved on by death or gentrification and a soldier suffering from the PTSD of life on the corner.