Black Star
Credit: Mathieu Bitton
by M.G. Mailloux Music What Would Meek Do?

Black Star — No Fear of Time

June 22, 2022

No Fear of Time is a breezy, concise record that proves Bey and Kweli are still lively performers, even if it doesn’t do much to suggest a continued future for the duo.

At first glance, the title of Black Star’s newest album, No Fear of Time, scans as a fitting choice for the elusive rap duo, their music — amounting to a single studio album, 1998’s Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star — often positioning them as truth-tellers striving toward an elevated consciousness. The duo then at the start of their respective careers, Black Star is surely a product of its time and the combined youthful vigor and imagination of 26-year-old Yasiin Bey and 23-year-old Talib Kweli, an album rightly celebrated for the technical ingenuity it showcases, but also frequently caught up in the self-seriousness that ruled certain genre factions during this era. At the forefront of an independent, underground scene backed by now-defunct Rawkus Records, Black Star rap from a moral high ground on their debut, paying homage to foundational hip hop legends like KRS-One and Slick Rick while wagging their fingers at the likes of Diddy and wringing their hands over the popularity of the violent rhetoric embraced by gangsta artists. 

Quite removed from where the genre currently rests, there were a good number of years where a follow-up project was in great demand, Bey and Kweli performing together with enough regularity to keep hopes alive, until both figures receded out of the culture far enough that it ceased to matter. In Bey’s case, the move away from the spotlight seemed more purposeful, an explicit decision to retire that hasn’t stuck (though it seems that he has entirely divorced himself from Hollywood), whereas Kweli’s career stalled out around the time he went independent, his more recent media coverage focusing on the sexual and cyber harassment charges lodged against him. And so Black Star makes their return at a peculiar moment, when there’s no longer obvious space for them to occupy, nor obvious interest in these artists from the broader, current-day culture — recharacterizing the title as a sort of defiant, self-deprecating joke.

But impressively, Black Star totally earn this joke, defying doubters and haters alike with No Fear of Time, an album that convincingly stages Bey (whose solo output has always been pretty forward-thinking, in fairness) and Kweli for 2022 without diluting the pair’s chemistry. Relegated to the library of podcast subscription service Luminary — which recently landed a massive investment from mutual buddy and co-host Dave Chappelle  (the trio have a show together on the network, naturally) — there’s a good chance that No Fear of Time may end up sneaking by a broader audience, and still another chance that those who do hear it will find the project too tainted to engage. But this probably works into Black Star’s designs just fine, their dubious release strategy as much a means to combat the devaluing of their art as it is a way to defuse two-plus decades worth of built-up anticipation. 

A breezy nine-track, 32-minute record produced by Madlib in full, Black Star rise to the occasion with No Fear of Time, without necessarily showing up past collaborations. Offering up a chic narrative suggesting the recordings were made “guerrilla-style” in hotel rooms and dressing rooms over some stretch of time (word that this project was completed surfaced as early as 2019), the supposed off-the-cuff nature of the album’s recording process is apparently born out in the fundamental sketchiness of some of these tracks, like the two-minute long “Sweetheart. Sweethard. Sweetodd.” and the similarly brief Bey solo cut “My favorite band.” But regardless of duration, Madlib’s beats hit consistently hard, though the more sweeping pieces like opener “o.G.” and the Black Thought-featuring penultimate track “Freequency” inevitably impress the most, allowing the producer space to construct these beautiful, multi-part compositions that move from erratic menace to spacey melancholy in an elegant, unshowy manner. Bey and Kweli are still lively performers and able to match each other’s energy for the most part, with both sort of lyrically challenged — the former weary and repetitive, the latter’s pontifications on social justice more fraught and haphazard than ever. Still, No Fear of Time is hard to resist in its fleet, compact state, its problems mostly mitigated by the amount of time Black Star stays on mic. But whether or not there’s a sustainable future for the duo, or even active interest in releasing more music together, remains entirely uncertain by the time the album concludes.

Published as part of Album Roundup — May 2022 | Part 3.