Kickstarting their careers with an eponymous album in 1998, Yasiin Bey (formerly known as Mos Def) and Talib Kweli quickly solidified their positions in the upper echelon of East Coast rap. As Black Star, they pushed the genre into a bold new era while simultaneously paying homage to what came before.
Despite the duo finding subsequent success as solo artists, 24 years passed by with little more than a few one-off singles and reunion performances. This changed with the announcement of Black Star’s second album No Fear of Time. Fans found this to be bittersweet news, as the record was only available to paid subscribers of the podcasting platform Luminary.
Many still had optimism about the project’s potential, given the undisputed lyrical prowess of Bey and Kweli. Legendary beatmaker Madlib’s inclusion as the album’s sole producer only compounded these expectations. With hesitant hip-hop heads debating whether or not to go the extra mile to listen to No Fear, many seek to know if it’s worth the time and effort. The answer depends on who is asking.
It’s clear through the words of the MCs themselves that they had no intention of making a proper sequel to their first record. The album’s second track “So Be It” features plenty of confrontation, including a characterization of fans in Kweli’s closing verse when he assumes the persona of fans, asking “may I have a Black Star sequel?” Rather than a follow-up to Black Star, what the group delivers is an epilogue or a retelling of sorts.
Everything down to the name of the group is recontextualized on No Fear. Typically abstract references to Marcus Garvey’s Black Star Line are made much more explicit on many of the record’s tracks, especially the opener “o.g,” which mentions Bey’s deportation and time spent living in Africa. The track features a minimal beat, matching Bey’s noticeably sermon-like introductory verse. This characterization may have something to do with the biblical rhetoric, leading into a passionately sung chorus, presumably referencing the Quranic chapter of Abraham.
Kweli’s subsequent verse is expectedly dense and features a few literary nods to works like Robinson Crusoe and Doors of Perception. These more cerebral moments are balanced out by the
instances throughout the record where Kweli directs his lyrical expertise at the jugular. Whether it’s his takedown of white supremacy on the back end of “The Main Thing…,” or his criticism of “white liberals feigning concern” on “Yonders,” the MC proves that he still has something left to say.
Intentional or not, these high points are matched by more than a few cases of the group phoning
it in. Madlib suggested No Fear’s minimalist aesthetic was a result of it being completed on the road, but his similarly composed Freddie Gibbs collaboration, Bandana, made more with less. Bey and Kweli often strike a similarly dejected tone for much of the record, ensuring listeners feel the true passage of time between their two releases.
While No Fear doesn’t quite live up to the initial Black Star outing, however, it shouldn’t be
written off entirely. Longtime fans and hip-hop heads at large will get a lot out of hearing three veterans of the genre coalesce on a brief project, even if they are collectively punching below their weight. I would definitively say that it’s worth a listen if you’re already a Luminary subscriber or if you get your hands on a digital copy. Otherwise, I wouldn’t blame you for sitting it out.\