Getting old isn’t much fun. You get aches and pains that you didn’t used to. You don’t sleep as well as you once did. You’ve got bills to pay, jobs to go to, and a bunch of other stuff that keeps you from doing things you used to like to do, if you can even remember what those were. You’re also reminded pretty constantly that pop culture is a young person’s game and mostly isn’t made for you anymore: Artists you loved when you were younger get old themselves, and even if their work remains at a high level of quality (never guaranteed), they’re no longer anyone’s new and cutting-edge thing, even if it was once yours.
I had a lot of these thoughts while listening to No Fear of Time, the new album by the late 1990s rap duo Black Star that, contra its title, succeeded at making me quite afraid of time. Black Star consists of rappers Talib Kweli and Yasiin Bey, formerly known as Mos Def. Until recently they had released a total of one album, 1998’s much-revered Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star. In the years since, Kweli and Bey have sporadically reunited for the occasional soundtrack cut and compilation track, but No Fear of Time is only the duo’s second official album, and its first in nearly 24 years.
If you haven’t heard No Fear of Time, or even heard much about it, that’s probably because you can currently only listen to it on Luminary, a subscription-only podcasting platform. It’s only nine tracks long and spans only a half-hour. It’s not a terrible album by any stretch, but even its best moments mostly make you wish they’d gotten back together earlier. Kweli sounds energized, but his rhymes often feel broad and occasionally cranky—gripes about “millennials” being “for sale” and people who “play oppression Olympics, looking for gold medals.” Bey comes off like a guy who hasn’t rapped much lately and is fine with that; his verses often sound like reference tracks or first drafts. It’s a disappointingly somnolent showing from a guy who, at the height of his powers, was one of the very best MCs walking the earth. The great Madlib handles production, which is largely excellent, full of spacy, effervescent samples and glistening, cymbal-heavy loops. But given the relative detachment of Black Star themselves, it quickly starts to feel like work for hire.
A striking quality of No Fear of Time is how removed from time it feels, with both MCs treading a lot of the same ground they were covering a quarter-century ago, manning the barricades of real hip-hop, spitting righteous if broad political slogans. No Fear of Time often seems blissfully unaware that any other rap music has been made in the past couple of decades, whereas its predecessor was, if anything, hyper-aware of the musical world that surrounded it.
Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star was arguably the crown jewel of the heyday of Rawkus Records, the legendary New York “underground” hip-hop label. (I put that word in scare quotes for a number of reasons, chief among which being that Rawkus was owned by Rupert Murdoch.) It was an album preoccupied with pitting underground purity against mainstream dilution, a major ideological schism in the landscape of 1990s rap. Black Star’s ambitions were nothing less than to rescue hip-hop from the glossy, MTV- and radio-friendly commercialism of the “shiny suit” era and return it to its rightful position as a fiercely intellectual, Afrocentric, capital-A Art Form.
Prior to the release of their debut, both Mos Def and Kweli had become mainstays of a thriving New York City alternative rap scene, but Black Star catapulted them into stardom, or at least what passed for it in the circles in which they ran. Both men released stellar follow-ups, Bey with his 1999 disc Black on Both Sides (an album that, to my ears, has aged even better than Black Star), and Kweli returned as one half of Reflection Eternal with DJ Hi-Tek (who’d also produced Black Star) on 2000’s Train of Thought. By the mid-aughts, Bey had become a movie star, while Kweli had become an icon of left-of-center, “conscious” hip-hop, getting name-checked by Jay-Z, guest-starring on Kanye West tracks, and even enjoying some distinctly aboveground chart success when his 2007 album Eardrum debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200. (More recently, Kweli was banned from Twitter for “repeated violations” of the platform’s conduct guidelines, a depressing episode on roughly a thousand different levels.)
Listening to Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star today, many of the album’s various commitments and beefs feel distinctly of its moment. But it’s also a compulsively backward-looking album, obsessed with history to degrees that can be overwhelming. The work of Boogie Down Productions, in particular, is referenced expansively and repeatedly (by 1998, KRS-One was well established as an unimpeachable paragon of true-school faith-keeping). There’s sampled dialogue from the classic 1982 graffiti documentary Style Wars. There’s a whole track called “Children’s Story” that’s a rewrite of the Slick Rick classic of the same name. (Black Star’s version is a thinly veiled broadside against the hit-making machine of Bad Boy Records.) At times, listening to Black Star feels like watching a debut movie from a precocious young filmmaker in which every shot is an homage to an older movie, an aesthetic torn between genuine love and a slightly immature need to show off how much stuff you know.
Classicist art is always in some sense fundamentally conservative, and it’s this aspect of Black Star that’s aged most awkwardly. The turn of the 21st century was a period of explosive regional growth for hip-hop, as scenes from Atlanta, Chicago, Houston, Memphis, St. Louis, and elsewhere were making more and more of an impact on the music, commercially and sonically. Less than six months after the release of Black Star, the dense and hyper-allusive style of backpack rap favored by Rawkus’ audience broke through to the mega-mainstream in the figure of a white rapper from Detroit named Eminem, who’d even contributed a track to the label’s 1999 Soundbombing II compilation.
Two dozen years later, Black Star’s insistence that the realest hip-hop was the province of those who’d memorized every line of By All Means Necessary and were versed in the most pedantic details of Brooklyn geography lands as a bit parochial, if not protectionist. It’s an LP that feels more like the end of something than a beginning, the closing of a decadeslong era when New York City reflexively understood itself to be the center of the hip-hop universe. The fact that Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star is so deeply nostalgic suggests that maybe Black Star themselves knew that that time was already past.
No Fear of Time is a nostalgic record as well, but mostly for Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star. There’s no shame in that, certainly; it’s how a lot of aging artists make their money. It did make me miss Black Star, though—what they once represented and how much they meant to fans who loved them. For all of Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star’s youthful imperfections, there’s such joy and conviction to it, an earnest insistence that art should be about something more than getting rich and famous, that hip-hop is something important and beautiful that needed to be protected from gadflies and opportunists. I’m sure that kind of opinionated and impassioned romanticism still exists today, young fans who proudly declare that everything that gets played on the radio sucks, that doing splashy collabs with pop stars makes you suspect, who’ve spent the past few weeks incessantly listening to Billy Woods’ Aethiopes and telling their friends that it’s better than anything Jack Harlow will make in his life. Those kids are out there, and the future is theirs.