clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Rebellion Behind a Paywall: On Black Star’s ‘No Fear of Time’

Yasiin Bey and Talib Kweli’s Luminary-exclusive new album comes 24 years after their classic debut. Both the where and when of its release may ultimately matter more than the music itself.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

“Record contracts are just like—I’m gonna say the word—slavery. I would tell any young artist … don’t sign.” —Prince, speaking to reporters in 2015.

“Everything is not for sale, everybody pay a price / You can run away and not escape, that’s the way of life.” —Yasiin Bey, “Freequency,” 2022.

Everyone remembers that Prince wrote “slave” on his cheek, but most don’t remember the specifics as to why. In the early ’90s, the Purple One signed a then-record contract with Warner Bros., the only label he’d worked with to that point. But in exchange for the handsome payday, Warners had demands: input on the creative process, remixes with trendy producers, more radio-friendly singles, and most egregiously, the ability to dictate how and when albums would be released.

So, Prince protested. Loudly. The five-letter word on his face may have been the most visible sign of the feud, and the unpronounceable symbol may have been the worst for the marketing team, but his greatest weapon in his war on Warners came from the one thing he could definitely control: his release schedule. Between late 1992 and early 1996, Prince put out albums at a furious pace, quickly fulfilling his contract. But it was also more than just a scheme to get out of the deal: For Prince, the idea of the suits telling him when and how to release his work was unfathomable. “The music, for me, doesn’t come on a schedule,” he told The New York Times ahead of his first post-Warners LP. “The main idea is not supposed to be, ‘How many different ways can we sell it?’ That’s so far away from the true spirit of what music is.” That the album itself was forgettable didn’t matter—what mattered was Emancipation came out on Prince’s own label, NPG, with no input or involvement from Warners.

No Fear of Time, the highly anticipated sophomore album from Black Star, the legendary hip-hop duo of Yasiin Bey (née Mos Def) and Talib Kweli, comes 24 years after the rappers’ self-titled 1998 collaborative debut on the famed indie label Rawkus Records. That first album was considered by many the pinnacle of late ’90s underground rap, and it helped launch each artist’s successful (if scattershot) solo runs. The intervening quarter century has brought a lot of change, however: for hip-hop, for the music industry, for Bey and Kweli as individuals. Rawkus is gone, as are the indie-vs.-mainstream debates that made their first LP a rallying cry. Physical media has given way to streaming platforms like Spotify (The Ringer’s parent company), which has brought a new set of economics and raised questions about equity and fairness. And Bey and Kweli have grown from wide-eyed 20-somethings paying tribute to KRS-One and B-boys to men nearing 50 with complicated personal histories and long-held disillusionments with the record industry. (Those feelings that have only calcified in recent years.) Even as fans pined for this record and the rappers teased it over the past two decades, it seemed more likely it would never come to fruition—amid constant false starts and abrupt stops, it became a white whale on par with Dr. Dre’s Detox or André 3000’s fabled solo record.

Except, like Prince, Bey and Kweli understood they had something powerful at their disposal: control over when and how they released No Fear of Time. Different contractual situations meant an entirely different timeline than Prince’s rapid-fire early ’90s pace, but the ethos is the same. The music doesn’t come on a schedule for Yasiin Bey or Talib Kweli, either.

The when of Black Star LP 2 is fascinating enough, but the how tells a story of its own. The self-released No Fear of Time arrived last Tuesday on Luminary, a subscription podcast service (and onetime Ringer partner). After more than two decades of waiting, the only place where fans can legally hear Bey and Kweli’s new album is via a relatively obscure app that costs either $4.99 per month or $34.99 annually, has no music library to speak of, and is designed for podcasts, not songs. That will scare off some would-be listeners, but the rappers seem unbothered. Details of their arrangement with Luminary have not been announced, though the service already hosts Kweli’s People’s Party podcast and The Midnight Miracle, the show Bey and Kweli host with their friend Dave Chappelle (who recently invested in Luminary amid massive changes at the company). Presumably, Bey and Kweli were paid well for the rights to exclusively host No Fear of Time. But aside from the financials, they’ve described the Luminary release as an act of rebellion: On a recent episode of The Midnight Miracle, Bey compared payouts by Spotify and other streamers to modern-day colonialism. “I’m supposed to get part of a penny?” he said. “Who looked at a penny and decided it could be broken up into parts, to be meted out to people essential to the fucking labor?”

There’s a tension at the center of No Fear of Time: Does it exist because Bey and Kweli wanted to put out new Black Star music, simply because the money had become too enticing, or as a means of protesting a system they see as disenfranchising artists? At times throughout the album, it’s hard to tell. Made “guerilla style” in hotels and dressing rooms over the past four years, No Fear of Time sits at nine tracks and 33 minutes, its slight stature belying its heavyweight expectations. Unlike on their concept-heavy debut, Bey and Kweli have little interest in hooks or even form: Their verses rarely match in theme or length, their bars start on odd measures and end randomly. The uniformly excellent production is supplied entirely by Los Angeles beatsmith Madlib—the loop digger best known for Madvillainy and his Freddie Gibbs collaborations—and his dusty, psychedelic gumbo gives No Fear of Time an edge that didn’t exist amid the pristine boom-bap and neo-soul of its predecessor. The result is something lo-fi and messy, but often urgent. On “So Be It,” Bey uses Madlib’s Bollywood-chase-scene backdrop to unleash 45 bars of percussive syllable play (“at a Chuck D level, y’all at petite level / Have gun, do travel, spread love, beat devils”); with the cosmic jazz of the album’s centerpiece, “The Main Thing Is to Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing,” Madlib is at the peak of his powers and Bey and Kweli summon the energy to match. At its best, No Fear of Time makes you feel like you’re eavesdropping on a late-night cypher or listening to an unmastered leak of a would-be classic.

When it misses, however, No Fear of Time comes off as a first draft. Bey—who announced his retreat from music in 2016 and has reemerged since only for stray features and to play unreleased tracks in art museums—sounds intermittently disinterested in the proceedings. For every verse like his fiery turn on “So Be It” (which, it should be noted, is partly recycled from a 12-year-old loosie) or the spiritual solo joint “My Favorite Band,” there’s another where he sleepwalks—like his weathered performance on “Yonders” or “Freequency,” where Black Thought’s airtight guest spot only highlights Bey’s exhausted drawl. Semiretired at 48 years old, Bey is still one of the most talented rappers of his generation—compelling whether he’s bellowing a chorus or mush-mouthing his way through a 16—but his career remains one of hip-hop’s biggest what-ifs. Here, the question is: What if he had re-recorded his scratch vocals and not borrowed lines from one song to place on another?

Kweli, meanwhile, is in typical Kweli form, for better or for worse, deftly breaking down the gentrification of his native Brooklyn one moment and eliciting groans with one-liners the next. His fervent rapping leads to a handful of gut punches (“Seen the same kind of fate that turned Dumile to Metal Face” may be the single best line on the album), but most times, his breathless delivery comes off as though he’s frantically Googling to complete a couplet. (Take the opener “O.G.,” where Kweli rhymes “Cinema Nouveau” with “Robinson Crusoe,” then “Daniel Defoe” and “Encyclopedia Britannica flow.” Kweli will never let you forget that he is the son of an English professor and a college administrator.) In the past, Bey’s and Kweli’s approaches have felt like necessary counterweights, with Kweli’s nasally open-mic-night sensibilities balancing out Bey’s roaring sermons. Here, it can seem as though the rappers are having parallel conversations, waiting for the other to finish so they can spit their verse.

None of this is to say No Fear of Time is necessarily bad—if it’s not one of the year’s better hip-hop albums, then it’s certainly one of its most fascinating, and while Madlib’s production never reaches Madvillainy or Piñata heights, it’s his most cohesive front-to-back effort in years. But No Fear of Time lacks the same spark that made Black Star’s debut an aspirational backpack-rap text. That album is not perfect, especially in 2022—the anti-Puffy finger-wagging on “Children’s Story” is dated, to say nothing of the strains of homophobia—but songs like “Thieves in the Night” and “Respiration” are still vital today. No Fear of Time may actually have a greater hit rate than its predecessor, but fewer valleys come with fewer peaks. Ultimately, it’s up to the listener to decide whether a Black Star album short on transcendent moments is a worthy successor—or whether anything matters beyond the album’s very existence.

It’s Newton’s Third Law: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. And as hip-hop scaled up to blockbuster heights in the late 1990s, that necessitated a movement that stood in defiance to the prevailing commercial trends. It sounds laughable in 2022, when the line between underground and mainstream is as thin as one viral TikTok hit and the word sellout is as archaic as it is laughable, but 25 years ago, a subset of rappers and producers saw selling a lot of records—or at least making concessions to do so—as a bad thing.

Like Subpop with grunge or SST with early alt-rock, a handful of labels achieved cult status by codifying this independent streak. The best of them made their bones with lyricist-driven, throwback-minded hip-hop, peddling mostly 12-inch singles with two or three songs. In New York, there was Bobbito Garcia’s Fondle ’Em, which put out grainy new releases by the likes of the Juggaknots and a certain metal-faced villain; in Cali, there was Hieroglyphics Imperium and Stones Throw, which put their own smoked-out twists on West Coast rap; in the Midwest, there was the upstart Rhymesayers, which made great music for girls with really bad tattoos. But there was no underground hip-hop label bigger than Rawkus Records: They found acclaim early with El-P’s first group—the dense, cerebral Company Flow—and then built the deepest roster in the subgenre, even putting out a single and a few features from Eminem. (Those tracks earned the label a shout-out on “Stan.”) It didn’t hurt that Rawkus also had an excellent razor-blade logo and an even better slogan, which the company co-opted from Co Flow: “Independent As Fuck.” It was a means of selling the revolution back to you while pretending it didn’t care whether you bought it.

But when Rawkus needed true stars, it didn’t go for El-P’s brand of dystopian B-boy anthems. It turned to two kids from Brooklyn with Native Tongues connections and more charisma by themselves than the rest of indie rap combined. Talib Kweli and Dante Smith met in Greenwich Village’s Washington Square Park in the early 1990s through Mister Man, a rapper in a fledgling group with light BET buzz called Da Bush Babees. Soon, Smith—who adopted the name Mos Def—was starring on NBC’s short-lived The Cosby Mysteries and appearing on records by De La Soul and Mister Man’s group, the latter of which landed on a few Billboard genre charts off the strength of Mos’s earworm chorus. “He was doing this underground hip-hop thing that was considered nerdy and backpack-ish, but Mos Def brought a certain levity to it,” Kweli later said. “It was like, ‘OK, if this guy is doing it, let me take a closer look.’”

When it came time to put out his own music, Mos turned to Rawkus, and from his true-school-baiting solo debut “Universal Magnetic” onward, he made good on the talent he had been teasing for years—his voice immediately on the short list of rap’s greatest, his pen game nearly unrivaled from day one, his sense of melody still the gold standard for singing rappers, Drake be damned. While he was getting his start on Rawkus, his conscientious, lyrically lyrical pal Talib Kweli had also signed to the label and began to find his footing with Reflection Eternal, his group alongside producer Hi-Tek. Kweli and Hi-Tek’s first single, “Fortified Live,” called in Mos and Mister Man for reinforcements; along with its B-side, “2000 Seasons,” it’s still a stone-cold classic.

To hear Kweli tell it, Black Star was Mos Def’s brainchild: He wanted to pair with his friend for an LP under a name inspired by one of Marcus Garvey’s grand experiments. Rawkus certainly didn’t have any objections. The two most promising stars on the label—both of whom represented the values Rawkus wanted to push, and one of whom was on the verge of becoming a bona fide movie star—wanted to team up for a full-length album. They surpassed even the loftiest of expectations: Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star was released on September 29, 1998, the same day as Jay-Z’s Vol 2 … Hard Knock Life and Outkast’s Aquemini. It charted at no. 53 on the Billboard 200, a monumental feat at the time for an indie hip-hop record led by a Boogie Down Productions tribute and heavy on anti-mainstream screeds. Today, its reputation approaches the other albums that dropped on that day. Jay-Z would even later rap that had he been free of the commercial demands placed on him, he’d sound like Kweli. That almost certainly doesn’t happen without Black Star.

In the fairy-tale telling, that’s the end of the story: The “Independent As Fuck” Davids went toe-to-toe with the chart-topping Goliaths and held their own. Except the story doesn’t end there.

Rawkus—which was funded with seed money from News Corp. thanks to James Murdoch, Rupert’s son and likely Kendall Roy inspiration—was passed around the major-label system for years before ultimately dissolving. Mos switched his legal name to Yasiin Bey and stopped using his rap alias altogether; over the past decade, he’s receded from the spotlight and only sporadically reappeared, like when he feuded with the South African government over a passport issue in 2016. Despite a solid, if workmanlike solo career, Kweli is better known today as a podcaster than a rapper. He’s also come under scrutiny for the targeted online harassment of one woman. (You either die a hip-hop savior or live long enough to become the strawman you once rapped about.)

The fate of the first Black Star album is also difficult to reconcile with the original mission statement: “If you bought the Black Star album in the last 20 years, you paid Universal Records, which is one of the biggest companies on earth,” Kweli said in a recent NPR interview. “You know who you did not pay? You did not pay Black Star, because we didn’t see any of that money.” For the labels that came to own the masters, the idea of independence was just another ploy to sell records, on par with all the commercial gimmicks of the era. It’s Michael Jackson buying the Beatles publishing just to sell “Revolution” to Nike—a rebellion broken up into parts and commodified.

So No Fear of Time and its Luminary release become their own kind of revolution, in a way truer to the essence of Black Star’s debut than any pandering throwback could’ve been. Years after putting out their own quickie releases to fulfill contractual obligations and fighting their own wars on Warner, Yasiin Bey and Talib Kweli are following Prince’s and retaking ownership over their music with the only thing available to them: control over how they put it out. But they’re proving that Prince’s 1996 quote ahead of Emancipation was only partly prescient: How many different ways can we sell it? is sometimes a worthwhile question—and sometimes, it actually gets at what the true spirit of music is. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether No Fear of Time ends up like Prince’s first post-Warners record, forgotten except for what it represented. What matters is that it exists on Bey and Kweli’s own terms.