No Fear of Time
Somewhere between the wordy rapping/hood jazz of Gil Scott-Heron and the soulful, socio-semiotic import of Kendrick Lamar, there was 1998’s Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star. Quirky, intellectual, grooving, and vigilant toward repairing hip-hop’s culture of violence, the duo crafted athletic, improvisational, healing rap so hypnotic and forceful that its loomed large on the activist-rap art form and hovered above both rappers’ careers, creating an overly heightened bar for a rematch that would be nearly impossible to achieve.
Twenty-four years later, with Def now known as Yasiin Bey, Black Star’s free-flowing improvs are still wild and wooly (think Art Ensemble of Chicago and the language between Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman), and their cause still strong (it’s not like America’s streets got better). Talib Kweli makes disgust into an abstract in oil on “So be it,” and Bey smugly looks Satan in the eye, invokes hell, and provokes the devil into a battle rap on “Yonders,” and all is good. “Supreme alchemy” takes that free-jazz vibe of the Art Ensemble and spits it to the nth degree.
Beyond these great, inventive, and dynamic examples, much of the rest of No Fear of Time feels dull. As with the sound of Bey’s most recent solo works, Madlib’s production is thin and cheap. For two men known for complex rhythm schemes and doubly intricate thought bubbles, Bey in particular sounds as if he’d rather be anywhere but in a studio with his old friend as “Sweetheart. Sweethard. Sweetodd.” is listless and stiff.
And if you’re not at the top of your game, welcoming a guest such as Black Thought—The Roots’ mouthpiece and an underrated giant of freestyle rap and frank, lyrical forethought—just shows the cracks in Bey and Kweli’s lazy logic. Black Thought walks in the front door of “Freequency,” makes his strong presence known, and you forget who’s running the show on No Fear. Elsewhere, evoking the spirit of conscious rap and inventive Black music, Bey and Kweli use the voice of late musician and critic Greg Tate as part of the proceedings. And as wise as he is—and as they are—this version of Black Star never reaches the skies of its debut, or the full flower of the talents of anyone involved.