When you talk “classic rap duos,” Black Star — the one-two punch of Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def) and Talib Kweli — is sure to come up early and often. While both artists have had rich solo careers, together their distinct vocals and duet-style approach to rapping led to one of hip-hop’s most beloved records ever, Mos Def and Talib Kweli are Black Star. And that Rawkus Records classic created a hell of a lot of demand for more.
Well, it’s been almost a full quarter of a century since Kweli and Bey disrupted the scene, and for a while there it looked like they’d never return as a group. So when the duo finally announced a follow-up, No Fear of Time, it provoked as much hope as it did fear in the hearts of real heads. Did these legends still have it? Had hip-hop changed too much? Would Madlib doing solo duty on the production spiral out into weirdness or could we expect some actual bangers?
Let’s put that last worry to rest immediately — there are bangers all over this album. Tracks like “o.G.” and “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing” absolutely slap… in that Madlib fuzzed up kind of way. And the lyrics? They’re both on point and a departure, in the sense that Kweli and Bey are different people now living vastly different lives. With that said, insights and hard bars abound.
So let’s get into some of the coldest lyrical moments on No Fear of Time.
So Be It
As early as track one hits you, it’s clear that Black Star is back. “So Be It” sounds like it could be some lost MF DOOM beat. Dirty drums paired with a sinister bassline and hypnotic high hats grab at your ears immediately.
Yasin Bey jumps right into the track like a kid doin’ double dutch:
Atmosphere above that, you can’t touch that
Rеal, forever real, thеy can hate it or love that
It’s bigger than hip-hop hypes, and wicked government
Brooklyn award-winning, a not give a fuck in this
You in it for the most sucker-ish, dummiest
No getting love in this, some real riders up in this be-yotch!
Talib slides right in behind him with deft lyrical skill. As a Black Star fan, it’s almost chill-inducing. The mics sound tweaked like they might be in Madlib’s basement just having fun [in truth, they were often in hotel rooms and backstage with Dave Chappelle. — ed].
My songs is knowledge to heroes that need honoring
A promise: we demolishing all confederate monuments
I’m noticing how these Nazis become Congressmen
It’s softer than some Moccasins and way faker than collagen
It doesn’t matter if these scholars have got doctorates
They’re hiding behind fake names like Tommy Robinson
I’m bombing ’em
Plus the sleeve is monogram — if I die and come back I’ll perform as a hologram
Can’t tell if it’s a boy or a girl, get a sonogram!
My Favorite Band
Everyone is working at the top of their game on “My Favorite Band.” Madlib chose a sample that sounds like something Adrian Younge would loop late in the night. Laidback group harmonies, cymbals, and Indian sitars put you on a mushroom cloud from ’70s. The sounds are layered perfectly and set the stage for Yasin to do his thing once more:
If you pray don’t worry, if you worry don’t pray
My Umi told it to me just the other day
From the tall castle walls to the mean teeth streets
I hope you get what you want
And that you want what you need.
If you’re looking for some philosophy from your rap, that’s a good one to hold tight.
The Main Thing Is To Keep The Main Thing The Main Thing
Madlib creates a sinister track here, rich with dope drums and a haunting smoked-out bassline. This one feels like a legit post-show cipher session. Both MCs drop bars, but Talib hits the beat with intentional ferocity:
Tryna conquer us with the pestilence, huh?
This is Common as Black Excellence, huh?
They rewarded for mediocrity, huh?
Huh, I ain’t begging for my equality
No, I’m too big to fail
Grab the bull by the horn then wag the dog by the tail
The OGs is in jail, the millennials is for sale
Am I dreaming or do our demons have tentacles and scales, huh?
Automatic, automatic, the cause of static
This a trust exercise like falling backwards
Gotta trust we your guys and we gon’ catch ya.
“This as Common as Black Excellence” right after a bar that might or might not be about how the pandemic disproportionately affected people of color while simultaneously referencing Common’s song ‘Black Excellence?’ What true lover of hip-hop doesn’t eat that with a spoon?
On “Yonders,” Madlib brings an intoxicating beat loop with crispy snares and horn stabs. Kweli crushes the track lyrically, connecting the listener to graff writing bombers, Star Wars, and the Fresh Prince in just a few lines:
At the hardware store, a buck fifty wеnt a long way
Fat caps for the Krylon paint
Wait, you’re feeling froggy then leap like amphibians
Evolutionary, this apeshit you simian
Revolutionary and flier than Cloud City and
Superman to Man wearing capes like Calrissian
Toxic, see how they marketing carcinogens
Got them African dancing like Aunt Vivian
Deep cut references. Plus everyone loves Lando and Aunt Viv.
Here we find Talib rocking bars over a laid-back groove. A Sunday brunch kinda breakbeat. Line-for-line he proves that his crew is still above the bars of so many.
At the crib, we listen to Madlib
Hi-Tek, Dilla beat tapes and that’s it —
Supreme alchemy, refined chemistry, divine energy
We defined by our memories
On them days that I wish they took me instead of Beverly
I remember Rapsody reminded mе that life’s ahead of me
I drop thеm non sequiturs to bomb executives
You’ll always be the winner if you decide what the metric is.
We’re calling it right now, that last couplet might be the definitive bar of 2022.
Frequency w/ Black Thought
This entire record is dripping with soul from front to back. The boom and the baps are all on point. But this track here stands alone. The tension builds with Black Thought opening over a half-naked bassline with feint high hats. The drums never drop but that mood feeds your desire to listen. BT — a next level “your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper” — opens hard:
They’ll try to beat us, they will never defeat us
Attack thought leaders, as black warriors
Descend into darkness like black Orpheus
The stars of the story is back, y’all see us (Word)
We touchin’ everything that move
It’s like you gettin’ bombed on,’ at the show and prove
From an era before the views but came confused
Comes an American gangster slash Langston Hughes
And when I step into a place, it creates the mood
When I give a dissertation, we make the news
All my team do is win ’cause we hate to lose.
Talib comes in with a flawless entry for the alley-oop!
I shine like, silhouettes, when they dancing in the limelight
In hindsight, your songs is nursery rhymes like Three Blind Mice
You a klondike, looking brown but take a bite, you probably fine white
You want the reals to provide you with the highlights
You’ll never be prepared for what we facin’ if you scared of confrontation
So never hear what you sayin’ if you bring fear to the conversation
These abominations’ll bomb a nation and murder entire populations.
Yasiin closes just as hard as the other MCs, with his words embedded deep into the mood of the track.
Nobody makes it out alive, wow
Nobody ever really dies
Ain’t it crazy how the contrast coincide
Ain’t it strange how I’m amazed, but I’m not surprised?
They say that they don’t understand it but it’s not a lie
And indeed the understanding is not required
‘Cause as long as the soul is born and you feel a vibe
Don’t trouble your mind, it’s quite alright
More will be revealed in time
Thanks for being with us, ciao for now
High-end frequency champion sound.
No Fear of Time w/ Yummy Bingham
This track is pure old-school boom-bap. It opens with NOI leader Louis Farrakhan speaking wisdom. The tone reminds you of a classic Poor Righteous Teachers beat even Tony D would envy. Talib reminds us that his name means “truth-seeker” by spitting truth to power.
They say because she black that it’s impossible
To be racist but they assume that racism is logical
We know better, we know metals, no rose petals
Hiding in the shadows like Wesley Snipes in Mo’ Better
They play Oppression Olympics, looking for gold medals
We don’t settle.
Yasiin Bey found the pocket and seemed to be in the zone on this one:
We done survived and thrived in where others have died in
Bed-Stuy, do or die, so, do is what I did
Get it on, get her done, another one, another one
Banging mad lyrics um, you can feel a different run
Where they get their rhythm from? The tipping point, T.O.P!
Black Star reconvened, the boulevard of Anne Greene
That Kings County keep creating kings
Who make amazing and creative things — so give thanks!
Check out Black Star’s No Fear of Time only on Luminary.