Black Star’s Old Testament
Maybe it was all just a front to begin with.
4:27 PM EDT on May 18, 2022
Black Star—the hip-hop duo consisting of Brooklyn rappers Yasiin Bey and Talib Kweli—originated during a mainstream and still tumultuous time in rap music. 2Pac and Biggie had been violently gunned down. Puffy and Bad Boy Records were in the midst of their shiny suit era. DMX and Jay-Z were selling records by making the streets the main character of their music. Nas was doing all of the above. Black Star existed as a buffer—or a course correction—for all this bling rap that was corrupting the airwaves and influencing ghetto children in New York. The ’90s were about the dynamic between mainstream and indie, boastful and humble, materialistic and intellectual, and Black Star played off the last of those two. “Children Story,” from their first (and until recently, only) album is a cautionary tale for the vulturous music industry. Yasiin Bey, who used to go by Mos Def, was the more talented rapper of the two. His tongue-dazzling charisma stood out just as much as his Afrocentrism. He could dip into a melody and mix patois in the same way now-acclaimed stalwarts like Kendrick Lamar—who was surely influenced by Bey—or Mach-Hommy can now. Talib, on the other side, was insular and not as stylistic, forgoing flow for raps that read like he was trying to fill a word quota.
Black Star didn’t always work. For the most part, that’s because the talent was unevenly distributed. Kweli’s didacticism pales in comparison to the topical, blunted, and hypnotic Bey. Bey felt like he was figuring it out with you—Talib was the teacher that may have been right but he was the best at letting you know he was. On his own albums, Yasiin Bey takes something permanent like Blackness and makes it ephemeral and present. His presence is unrelenting and blown up to the tenth degree when he knows that someone is listening intently. Twenty-four years later, Black Star has reunited again for a new record, “No Fear of Time,” coming out on the podcast app Luminary. (One of Luminary's major investors is divisive comedian Dave Chapelle, a longtime friend of the group). The album is produced entirely by Madlib—the Oxnard producer, infamous for his loops on MF Doom’s “Madvillainy”—and he’s good on it, too, with the loop on “So be it” reminiscent of the theme music to a ’70s crime show. He’s strongest when he gives a lyricist the sonic landscape that allows their dexterity to shine, like juice bubbling out of a rare steak.
The album is sometimes impressive; tracks like “Yonders” would belong on the first album. But too often it only doubles down on the existing weaknesses of Black Star. Rappers don’t have to be good people or political—they just have to rap well. Black Star did that. But what separated them from other rappers of their era was their high-handedness, whether it was needed or not. Black Star—a duo that had a sense of duty, a moral compass, and a keen sense of what the Black community needed—was founded on the idea that they were arbitrators of what is just and haram in hip-hop. It should be said that the pair’s earnest justification of their first album now looks worse in retrospect. Kweli has been accused of sexual harassment (and then kicked off Twitter for harassment). Maybe it was just a front, to begin with. And sincerity has somehow gotten worse with time.
Still, hearing Bey rap on “So be it” reminds you why he connected with people. His technique is Henry Miller-ish in nature—free-associated, mystical, and full of philosophical reflection. He rips this verse: “Got the white and exact and a trap for the raps/The liars and the saps, the posers and the hacks/Laying my main line, your spine goes snap, Bey.” He raps with a confident smirk—the idea for you isn’t to be impressed, because he already is. His raps are towering but still inviting. Mach-Hommy is nice and all, but Bey does mysticism as well as he does. And Kweli, with his overstuffed wordplay, is rapping with glee about “Nazis becoming congressmen” and how “he only knows peace but all they care about is the violence.” It’s the music for the Hoteps that I’ve grown to love even if I’m dubious of their self-aggrandizing thinking. The problem is that Kweli doesn’t have much else to write about. He has one mode —peaceful preacher. In a world where white supremacy is making Black people all the more anxious and complex, Mr. Kweli doesn’t go beyond just saying “Real G’s try to stop the violence.” In order to help, you at least have to try to understand the new generation. It’s like Chris Rock said in “Head of State:” “How can you care about drug policies if you’ve never smoked the chronic?”
Black Star has always attempted to do good. They mean well. That’s no different here. Outside of music, there are tons of older Black men that are being criticized for not progressing with the times fast enough. (I am more cynical about how progressive people actually are.) I usually see older men, living by the bygone standards of masculinity, trying their best and sometimes failing to operate in a world with less rigid gender roles and with a more fluid sexual spectrum. On "No Fear of Time," Black Star avoids most of their most questionable instincts (including their past homophobia) but it still didn’t make for an immediate enough record. It isn’t ambitious enough to be a statement from the older generation to the youth, nor is it flexible enough for the young dudes to want to receive game from it.
Bey and Kweli inhabit spaces further away from one another than they used to. The details about the depraved NYPD and the riffs on when the hip-hop industry moved away from intellectualism and into jiggy club tunes are missing here. Now those intimate lyrics have been replaced by overbroad ideas like telling listeners to find some peace when the world is stressful and oafish criticisms of women (Talib talking about makeup on “Sweetheart. Sweethard. Sweettodd.” is too on-brand). That’s less enticing for a duo like Black Star that exists in the niche, participating in a conversation with hip-hop. Sadly, it’s come to this—Black Star are the old heads that are talking on the street outside the C train, keeping up the same conversation, without anyone stopping for their old testament.
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