Black Star Show Glimpses of Their Backpack Brilliance on 'No Fear of Time'
Published May 05, 2022Though Black Star's long-awaited second album doesn't reach the deep, dark, night sky heights of their 1998 debut Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star (how could it?), it's nevertheless a thrill to hear the Brooklyn duo finally reunite on No Fear of Time.
Annoyingly, the new LP is only available behind the Luminary app's paywall. That platform also exclusively streams The Midnight Miracle — Black Star's artsy podcast with Dave Chapelle — along with Talib Kweli's less inventive (but equally entertaining) interview show, People's Party, and a number of other lesser-known podcasts. This unique rollout may align with Kweli's indie entrepreneurial ethos, but it's hard to justify shelling out for a new (and, at least for me, glitchy) platform with minimal noteworthy content just to access an album.
The cumbersomeness involved in hearing this new music keeps with Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def) and Kweli's recent behaviour. After starring in a few Hollywood hits and the occasional album drop, Bey's showbiz ambivalence became apparent in his studio session tardiness and shunning of the media. Kweli admitted in one interview, "He can be hard to get in touch with … or he might be a little late. But stuff like that is minor in the grand scheme." Kweli never gave up hope that they would reunite as Black Star, though he admitted Bey was only receptive to it happening organically.
While Bey's mystique leaves fans curious, if not pining, Kweli is the opposite. Following major post-Black Star successes like "Get By" and "The Blast," Kweli became prolific to a fault with one album of diminished returns after another. His penchant for social media spats with faceless trolls, along with graver allegations of harassment (which he denies) that led to his Twitter expulsion, all tarnished the socially conscious rep of Kweli's heyday (at which he admittedly always chafed).
Even without those alarming developments, fans would be forgiven for doubting Black Star's current ability to reclaim the backpack rap mantle. After all, they all but pioneered the style, reviving positive MCing like young scholars hoisting dissertations on their shoulder straps back in 1998 so that the superficial shiny-suited chart toppers would know hip-hop class was back in session. It's no wonder reigning rapper JAY-Z would subsequently mull on wax about being "lyrically Talib Kweli."
That all occurred eras ago though, and rap's pace is speedy. Thankfully, Kweli and Bey never sound like has-beens throughout No Fear of Time's brisk nine-track half-hour.
Bey – whose soulful delivery was always Black Star's heart, balancing Kweli's heady rhymes – will give you chills on this new album's opener "o.G." as he dusts off the croon that made 1998 hit "Definition" so hummable. But it's even more engrossing to hear the elusive MC spit once again. On "So be it," he nimbly keeps step with the buzzing, erratic guitar sample from album producer Madlib. Bey is clearly invigorated by the legendary beatsmith's instrumental choices on that song, and the spry result is his best work since their similarly unconventional team-up on 2009 track "Auditorium."
Madlib's beats are often dependably soulful on No Fear…, only to fall short of his recent convention-shattering winning streak with Freddie Gibbs' Bandana and his 2021 solo opus Sound Ancestors. On "The Main Thing is to Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing," Madlib and Bey's ambition sadly meanders as much as the song's title. Listeners will beg for structure as the all-but-one-note loop backs clunky Bey boasts about being "automatic like autopilot." The track succeeds as an experimental peek into Bey's non-sequitur rife noggin, but never coheres as a song.
Bey and Madlib better utilize their talents on the closing title track. The producer brings brazen brass blasts and triumphant strings to bear on Bey's vista-wide vignettes. In the best of the latter, the rapper briskly equates resilient ghetto poets like Black Star with "fossils" that "the earth refused to swallow" (which he, naturally, deftly twists into a rhyme).
Kweli, meanwhile, raps like he has plenty to prove and remains more consistent throughout No Fear… as a result. Bey may be more flagrantly eccentric as of late, but Kweli's brilliant, bizarre concept combinations have been overshadowed for too long. That should end here and now, because who else would think to rap about "toppling the charlatans" before rhyming that with heroes who "need honouring"? Who else would boast about his "Encyclopedia Britannica flow"? Clearly, Kweli got over his complex about being too complex.
He also learns a thing or two from his more melodic partner, adopting a sing-song tone while rhyming on "o.G." Kweli nearly salvages the otherwise nonsensical "The Main Thing…" with audibly angry bars about Black excellence and white mediocrity, evoking the dues he's paid at demonstrations in Ferguson, MI, and elsewhere. Kweli and Madlib's blinding talents will dim your memory of No Fear's flaws on "Supreme alchemy." On this song, the producer's python hiss cymbal samples propel breathlessly dense double entendres from the "Get By" MC, leaving you to marvel at not only the duo's creativity, but also their tenacity.
Noble as some of No Fear's… ambitious stumbles are, and glorious as the duo sound when regaining their turn of the century rarified air, Black Star never reach the elder statesman excellence of underground peer Black Thought on his lauded recent EP series. That makes the Roots wordsmith's contribution to No Fear… highlight "Frequency" bittersweet. High expectations and decades of anticipation will also leave fans a bit disappointed by Kweli and Bey's lack of well-rounded reunion brilliance when compared to the greater success of a Tribe Called Quest's We Got It from Here... Thank You 4 Your Service.
Regardless, No Fear… lives up to its name thanks to Black Star's bravery against the odds of falling woefully short like nearly all of their fellow MCs would have. The fact that they occasionally come close to pulling off a comeback as towering as their debut will make you wish they don't wait so long to try again. (Luminary)