album review

The Improbable Return of Black Star

Photo: Bob Berg/Getty Images

We’ve been waiting on a second Black Star album since the Clinton administration. The fact that it exists — No Fear of Time, out now — is incredible. Their first album, 1998’s Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star, introduced Yasiin Bey (then known as Mos Def) and Talib Kweli as young philosophers and budding radicals. Luring you in with prodigious mic skills, they sent you away with homework, referencing seminal books, films, albums, and thinkers listeners could track down in their free time. They hoped it would build the foundation for their future solo releases. But something else happened: Every time the duo linked up after that, fans thirsted anew for a sequel.

Kweli and Bey, born Dante Smith, got to know each other in the early ’90s, freestyling in Manhattan’s Washington Square Park and appearing at the same local spoken-word events. Kweli, the son of college professors, approached hip-hop as an NYU theater student. Bey, a former child actor, was juggling dueling aspirations for careers in rapping and acting; he started a group called Urban Thermo Dynamics with his brother and sister, starred on the short-lived genre experiment The Cosby Mysteries, and logged respectable guest features on records by groups like De La Soul. The two Brooklyn rappers became fast friends. By 1997, they’d started making music together. Working alongside the producer DJ Hi-Tek and Rawkus Records, an upstart indie imprint founded by friends at Brown University, Bey and Kweli crafted exciting cuts like “Fortified Live,” “Universal Magnetic,” and “2000 Seasons” — all soon to be highlights from Soundbombing I, the landmark 1997 compilation collecting early works from Bey, Kweli, and Company Flow, and great performances from legendary oddballs like Kool Keith, Sir Menelik, and R.A. the Rugged Man. Then the duo went a step further, and in 1998 dropped an album.

The record arrived at a precarious moment in the late ’90s, amid difficult discussions about oppression. The news was full of developments like the brutal police attack on Haitian American security guard Abner Louima in New York City and the push to appeal the death sentence handed to Mumia Abu-Jamal, the journalist and activist charged with capital murder for the shooting death of a Philadelphia police officer. In music it was the height of the jiggy era, smack in the middle of the long trail of singles supporting No Way Out and Harlem World, where Puff and Mase made platinum hits out of healthy samples of existing platinum hits. The distaste for sleek commercial rap and remakes of ’70s disco and soul hits was steady enough to drive some listeners out in search of a different sound and musical ethos.

Bey and Kweli tied all the threads together, framing record-industry misdealings in rap as part of wider mistreatment of Black youth, just another manifestation of our nation’s original sin. Black Star pushed back against the devaluing of Black art and Black life. “Every day, somebody asks me where all the real MCs is at,” Kweli announced at the top of “Hater Players.” “They underground.” Even the group’s name is a provocation of a sort, a reference to Jamaican author and activist Marcus Garvey’s ill-fated plan for ferrying Black Americans back to Africa. They were trying to square a grisly past with a glossy present. As Bey articulated in “Thieves in the Night,” our “synthesized surface conceals the interior America: land of opportunity, mirages, and camouflages.”

After that, they appeared to go their separate ways. They reunited now and then — on the booming “Know That” from Bey’s 1999 debut Black on Both Sides, on the remix for “Get By” from Kweli’s 2002 debut Quality, at Dave Chappelle’s Block Party in 2004, on the joyous “History” from Bey’s 2009 album The Ecstatic — while Black Star was remembered as an indie-rap classic. The duo’s progressive, pro-Black politics and fiercely independent spirit appealed to a surprisingly wide spectrum of admirers. Associating with the indie-rap and neo-soul pioneers in the Soulquarians collective yielded space on classics like Common’s Like Water for Chocolate and the Roots’ Things Fall Apart and Phrenology. Both rappers guested on Ye’s The College Dropout; in the Netflix docuseries Jeen-Yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy we learned that Ye really wanted to produce for Black Star. “If skills sold,” Jay-Z rapped on The Black Album’s “Moment of Clarity,” “truth be told, I’d probably be lyrically Talib Kweli.”

Black Star’s No Fear of Time reminds us exactly how many years have passed since their first album, and how appreciable but truly unrepeatable that 1998 energy is now. Photo: Mathieu Bitton

Paradoxically, Kweli sought mainstream airplay in those years, following the success of his Ye-produced single “Get By” with The Beautiful Struggle, a collection of sleek R&B collaborations that drew accusations of selling out. He quickly pivoted, starting a label, Blacksmith Records, and putting out mixtapes like 2006’s Liberation, produced by Madlib. While Kweli tried to find a balance between respect from hip-hop heads and success on the charts, Bey set about befuddling a growing audience: 2004’s The New Danger dabbled in punk and metal with aid from members of Bad Brains and Living Colour. 2006’s True Magic slipped out without cover art or a traditional CD case in an attempt to get Bey out of his deal with Geffen Records, who acquired the Rawkus catalogue in 2004. (True Magic is remembered as a dud, but it did have “Dolla Day,” a freestyle where Bey criticized the paltry government response to Hurricane Katrina to the tune of the New Orleans rap trio UTP’s 2004 smash, “Nolia Clap.”) As their beloved debut grew smaller in the rearview, Bey and Kweli navigated increasingly different paths. While one rapper receded from view, floating retirement in 2016, the other attempted to build a career without bending to the sound of the radio. Bey left the States, taking up residence in South Africa. Kweli carried the torch, releasing a string of solid collaborative and solo indie albums.

The playing field is different today. “Wokeness” has become a boogeyman. Now, a term that used to refer to maintaining awareness of one’s past and present is a catchall phrase describing anything that grinds Republican Party gears at any given moment as books like Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye — name-checked in “Thieves in the Night” — come up in conversations about school book bans. It’s also a dodgy time for entertainment-industry figureheads who broke through in the ’90s and are now having their politics scrutinized and their past and present failings examined. In 2018, Philadelphia singer Res, who formed the group Idle Warship with Kweli in 2009, accused the rapper of refusing to release her music for years because she didn’t sleep with him. In 2020, he was permanently suspended from Twitter for an acrimonious, weeks-long campaign of posts harassing a Black woman. Bey made dubious headlines in 2006, when it was revealed that he came up short on child-support payments, and in 2008, when his ex-wife wrote a tell-all detailing an incident of physical abuse and told a newspaper that he refused to sign divorce papers to keep her from marrying anyone else. Misgivings and misdeeds stain the legacies of forward-thinking 20th-century entertainers now that we’re privy to Kweli’s sexism, to Dave Chappelle’s support of TERFs, to everyone’s homophobia. (The flaws were always present in the music. “Cats who claiming they hard be mad fags,” Bey snapped on Black Star’s “Re:Definition,” “so I run through ’em like flood water through sandbags.” “Young girls with weak minds,” Common snarked on “Respiration,” “but they butts strong.” Conscious rap championed self-expression unless it centered queerness or women’s sexual agency. That was too far out. That always brought the traditionalist out of these bohemian types.)

It is into this tumult that Black Star returns. Last spring, Bey and Kweli joined Chappelle, a longtime friend, for The Midnight Miracle, a podcast that streams only on Luminary, a subscription-based pod network. In a recent episode, Chappelle said that Bey abruptly pitched the idea for the show on a night when they were hiding from a tornado in Chappelle’s basement. The next day, Black Star began recording music again. Luminary culled from conversations at Chappelle’s 2020 Summer Camp shows, where he invited industry friends to Ohio to perform; Miracle darts in and out of these discussions on a whim, like a beat-maker chopping up samples. The debut episode goes into chilling detail about trying to stay in touch with Amy Winehouse as the singer was in the throes of multiple addiction. In an episode featuring David Letterman, Bey shares a strip-club story that gets the late-night legend to quickly make any excuse to escape the room, but Miracle doesn’t let the audience hear the offending tale. You aren’t always fully sure what they’re on about, but it’s nice hearing them bounce ideas off each other again. The same can be said about No Fear of Time, the long-awaited sophomore Black Star album, produced in full by Madlib and recorded in various mobile studios in hotels and dressing rooms backstage at Chappelle gigs.

No Fear of Time delivers the fast-paced wordplay and dizzyingly busy production you might have expected from the pairing. It is sublime hearing Yasiin Bey sing and rhyme over the psychedelic sample chops of “My Favorite Band” and “O.G.” It arouses immense nostalgia when Talib Kweli shouts out Dilla and MF DOOM over crisp drums and glimmering keys in “Supreme Alchemy.” Fear doesn’t seem interested in being easily unpacked in the way that its predecessor yearned to teach: Like the podcast, the new record runs short but manages to meander on its way to a neat conclusion.

Fear also sees the duo trying to get back on the same wavelength over a decade after the last time we heard them on a song — time apart where Kweli towed the line for sturdy East Coast hip-hop, while Bey took inspiration from left-of-center voices like MF DOOM, rhyming like a getaway car trying to lose the fuzz, moving with puckish disinterest in being followed. Kweli and Bey live far away from each other now: They can’t commiserate over a love of New York City or their contempt for the NYPD the way they used to. A curious balance is struck in these new songs where Kweli frets over upsetting current events, and Bey offers the bird’s-eye perspective and a promise that whatever the drama is, it’ll eventually shake out. This makes the two solo songs on No Fear feel more cohesive than the seven group songs. Kweli touches on creeping white nationalism throughout the album: “Ashes to ashes, and dust to dust,” he raps in “OG,” “we gonna bash these fascists and fuck them up.” His solo song, “Supreme Alchemy,” speaks about death, addiction, and incarceration. Bey’s solo song, “My Favorite Band,” asks us to kindly calm down and touch some grass: “Life is beautiful even when the world is wack / So much beauty we forget to be reminded / That you can be anywhere and find it / Try it.” The overarching message is disorienting; how can life be beautiful if everything is broken?

Bey and Kweli go verse for verse matching each other’s mood and attack, but some of these tracks feel more like spirited rhyme ciphers than tightly conceived songs. They seem like they’re having fun rapping but they also sound like they’re getting lost in the weeds. “So Be It” sees the duo throttle it over frenetic production as Kweli gets “lyrical miracle” about politics — “Your whole philosophy is mediocrity / Atrocities committed in the name of owning property monopolies” — while Bey recycles a decade-old verse: “Smarten up, dumbass / This ain’t bum class.” On its face, “sweetheart. sweethard. sweetodd.” seems like a sequel to the first album’s love song “Brown Skin Lady,” but the moment Kweli’s verse starts to cook he takes a sharp turn from lifting one woman up to making rote complaints about lace fronts and makeup. Bey responds with another reminder to go look at scenery.  It can be a blast listening to this back-and-forth, but sometimes it grates like nothing else in this duo’s shared catalogue.

You could argue that Madlib beats are bringing something different out of them — that all the heady Hi-Tek, J. Period, and J. Rawls beats on the first album helped to cultivate the moonlit reflection in those songs as much as either writer ever did. You cannot explain why these guys, who have both delivered some of their finest performances over Madlib productions in the past, would waste a minute of this comeback effort on filler bars or meandering verses. Or why, when Black Thought arrives on track eight — “Attack thought leaders as Black warriors / Descend into darkness like Black Orpheus / The stars of the story is back, y’all see us” — it feels like one of the only times here that someone carried a single thought from the beginning of a verse to the end.

In its moments of awkwardness, No Fear of Time reminds us exactly how many years have passed since Black Star, how many other shapes this follow-up might have taken over the years, and how appreciable but truly unrepeatable that 1998 (or even that 2011) energy is now. Some of it is good, particularly the last three songs, where No Fear eases into a soulful warmth; there it recalls the transition from the wise “Respiration” to the darkly reflective “Thieves in the Night,” the emotional core of their first album. Whenever it approaches excellence, No Fear almost rewards the wait — almost. You hope that it doesn’t take another quarter-century for these stars to realign. But as a longtime observer of these two artists, you understand intimately how that happens. They both have families. Kweli runs a label. And, to quote “Sweetodd,” “Bey do what Bey do.”

The Improbable Return of Black Star