In today’s landscape, there’s a subculture of rap fans who still want albums with a message. In the past few weeks, the album releases of Vince Staples, Pusha T, and Action Bronson have brought a renewed respect for lyricism and penmanship, elevating their writing game to a new level. Next week, Kendrick Lamar’s Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers and Quelle Chris’ DEATHFAME are both dropping on May 13. This subculture has plenty more opportunities to provide commentary and dissect lyrics, making connections from hip-hop’s past, present, and future.
How does Black Star fit in all this? After many false starts over the years, Yasiin Bey and Talib Kweli finally reunited as Black Star to release No Fear of Time, which is entirely produced by Madlib and their first project in 24 years. Available only on Luminary (a subscription podcast platform), the album’s message — according to Kweli — is to remain true to one’s self: “To not let time, money, clout, trends dictate how you move. And to be closer to whatever your core is, whether it’s a belief in God, whether it’s a set of morals that you follow.”
In 1998, Black Star debuted during a time when artists like DMX, N.O.R.E., Big Pun, OutKast, Master P, Lauryn Hill, and JAY-Z dropped what many consider today as their classic albums. Before the duo released their own classic album — Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star — in September, a VIBE Next feature from April that same year told the story of how Kweli and Mos’ duo came to be. “We started out rhyming in the park, with no money, no tokens,” Kweli said at the time. “And there’s nothing wrong with loving what you do and doing it for the love.” That’s the key difference between ’98 Black Star and ’22 Black Star on No Fear of Time: one half is doing it for the love while the other is doing it for the love and making a point. Both Kweli and Bey sound motivated and excited to rap like they’re back in their 20s.
No Fear of Time is fueled by Black Star’s emotional connections to God, shout outs to Brooklyn, grievances with the American political system, and the importance of Black ownership. Recorded guerrilla-style in hotel rooms and dressing rooms across the globe, the album sounds vintage and free-flowing like they just let the Madlib beat tape play on repeat. On “o.G.,” Bey naturally interweaves social consciousness, his religion as a devoted Muslim, and poetry into his music, resulting in verses that has multiple meanings that need more than one listen to decipher. “The parable of the talented, each generation / The wonders and the wealth of all nations / Is really chump change once you take into consideration / The living revelation that no soul could escape from / So go on, let a sucker say something / ‘Cause even when they’re saying something, they ain’t saying much,” Bey raps. Kweli comes through with a verse boasting about being independent artists, leaning into his style of intellectual rhymes: “Encyclopedia Britannica flow / The gravity to pull a planet, straight insanity / That bust open your cantaloupe flow / We the lions where the antelope roam.”
What works for Black Star is Madlib’s production as a vehicle for these two to rift about love (“Sweetheart. Sweethard. Sweetodd.”) one moment, and why white supremacy is out to get them (“The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing”) in the next. While Madlib remains a master of digging for samples, it’s not as smooth as a listen as his albums with Freddie Gibbs. Namely, he’s missing signature track transitions and rolling themes. Still, the album contains some of Madlib’s most interesting production, with songs like “Yonders” and “Supreme alchemy” great examples of Madlib re-creating the concrete jungle in audio form, with the pair of songs kicking off the better half of the album. “Supreme alchemy” is also notable because Kweli gets personal about the passing of his grandmother, Beverly Moorehead. “On them days that I wish they took me instead of Beverly / I remember Rapsody reminded mе that life’s ahead of me,” he raps.
There are also some significant features, primarily from The Roots’ Black Thought on lead single “Frequency.” Alongside his fellow rap titans, Thought shows he no longer needs to prove that he’s one of the greatest rhymers on the planet. Kweli uses the collaboration to make a statement about who is king, and inspires fans to own something:
“Get your ass up out the throne ’cause it is not yours and you know it / Evacuate it, with Black Thought and Black Star creating / Belong to Two One Five Entertainment and Black Star Incorporated / ’cause we ain’t playin’ / We defied and melt your plastic operation / The ancestors proud of us ’cause we the catalyst for mass decarceration.”
As for Bey, a lot of his verses sound like he freestyled them, loosely stringing thoughts together to create this unpolished, raw quality about the songs. You can picture him doing his parts with a red Shure mic in hand, next to Talib, rocking out. Whether Bey went for a more improvised approach to his raps on this album or not, No Fear of Time has some strong lines from Bey, especially the title track, where he mentions being a survivor of his borough.
It’s inevitable that Black Star fans are going to draw comparisons between Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star and No Fear of Time. Some of them will be “hater players” and argue that we never really needed a “Black Star 2,” considering the first one is more complete. After all, it’s a timeless album defined by tracks like “Definition,” “Brown Skin Lady,” and “Respiration,” has the production of the revered Hi-Tek. But No Fear of Time still succeeds in showing how Kweli and Bey continue to be guides for the type of lyrical rap they’ve essentially become elder statesmen of. This is encapsulated in a sample of a speech from the late Greg Tate on “No Fear of Time,” where the influential cultural critic describes hip-hop albums as “theory books and guidebooks” made from MCs with “phenomenal memories” who “learned all that material.”
From top to bottom, Black Star hasn’t squandered their opportunity to teach a lesson. “I drop thеm non sequiturs to bomb executives / You’ll always be the winner if you decide what the metric is,” Kweli raps on “Supreme alchemy.” If Kweli and Bey’s purpose for the first Black Star album was to stand tall on the shoulders of their ancestors, then No Fear of Time is reaching down to pull people up. It’s an educational experience on rebelling against the dominant mode of listening and maintaining autonomy and independence over your art, allowing Black Star to keep shining on their own terms.
Eric Diep has written for Billboard, Complex, Vulture, HipHopDX, and XXL. He is a freelance journalist based in Dallas.
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