It’s been 24 years, but we are finally here. Black Star’s follow up to 1998’s We are Black Star has been long awaited and discussed in hip hop circles for years. That first record in 1998 blew everyone’s mind with references to New York, Fela Kuti and Toni Morrison. Now we are here…but behind an app’s paywall? The when and where with how No Fear of Time dropped raises questions of accessibility and who owns music in a digital record store world. But more on that later, let’s focus on the lead single OG and compare that to another track on the record, So Be It.
The track OG is not a lead single in the traditional sense, in that it was released on You Tube for people to listen to free of charge. Therefore, I thought I would focus on that track because it will be the one that’s most accessible. Black Star is Yasiin Bey (formally known as Mos Def) and Talib Kweli, who have grown into hip hop icons within the 24 years in between releases. Musically, the track is fairly stripped back compared to the headphone symphony Definition from the first record. Having said that, it fits the flow and the song is more of a vibe than a banger. Lyrically, I believe that Talib takes this track over and Bey cannot match his energy. I find that Talib brings his usual energy and popping delivery, which really elevates the track.
So Be It, which is the next track on the record is quite a departure from OG. First of all, it has a 70s action music vibe, which really drives the track and energises both Bey and Kweli. I love the lo – fi vibe of it, which really works with both Bey and Kweli who really bring it. They are just spitting bars and really in sync throughout the track. Bey seems to never come up for air with references to Chuck D and a slight nod to Erykah Badu’s track The Healer with “it’s bigger than hip hop / bigger than the government” line. So Be It is a top 10 song of the year and by far the best track on the record…but that is the problem.
Bey and Kweli decided that they would release No Fear of Time on the Luminary podcast app exclusively. Now, OG can be heard for free on You Tube, but the rest of the record must be streamed on Luminary; therefore, if you want to listen to this track you better keep your subscription current at $45 USD a year. One assumes that Bey’s and Kweli’s podcast on the same platform had something to do with this decision…as well as a dump truck full of money. At least, I hope they got a dump truck of money, because they are severely limiting their audience. You might think, “what’s the difference between this and Spotify?” and you would be right. However, Spotify gives you access to an entire library of songs…except for Neil Young and Joni Mitchell…and Luminary is basically some podcasts and this record. For one month you can fork out $6ish, which is a steal to listen to such a great record, but if you want to listen to it for the year, $45 might be a bit steep. However, if you are a fan like me, you will drop the $6 and listen to it constantly for that month.
Bey and Talib have talked about how they made this decision based on the meagre amount of money artists get for their work on both iTunes and Spotify. It is a throwback to the days of Joy Division going on Factory Records or Ani DiFranco creating Righteous Babe Records in order to avoid very restrictive deals with major labels. Luminary is sort of the indie digital play. However, the issue is ownership and how you can access music. On all digital platforms you are paying for the opportunity to listen to the song and not to own the song. Recent court cases have proven that you do not even own the downloads you pay for from iTunes, you mainly pay for the opportunity to listen to the song. Gone are the days of picking up a LP and passing it onto a friend or giving your music to a son or daughter. The ease and accessibility of digital music has come at the cost of ownership and creating a permanent music library. In order to get all the music you like you don’t have to drive across town to different record stores, but you do have to manage a mountain of monthly / yearly subscriptions.
This all brings up the spectre of music piracy. I know there are ripped versions of this record out online that you can download. As long as people have been paying for music, there have been ways to get it for free. Now, I do not support music piracy in any way. If anything, drop the $6 for one month of Luminary and check it out. Even though putting a new release behind a pay wall that music listeners do not use may be a barrier, but it’s not unworkable. Just pay the money you slackers….that’s right Jim…I’m talking to you.
Putting the discussion of musical ownership, piracy and Luminary exclusivity aside, OG and So Be It are great tracks to get you back in the Black Star spirit. I do not think this is as good of a reunion record as Tribe Called Quest’s We Got it From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service or even The Chicks’ Gaslighter, but these tracks are definitely not a disappointment. I think So Be It is a far superior song to OG and will be on a lot of year end top 10 lists. So, if you are a Black Star fan it is worth going to Luminary and putting down a few months of subscription to have a good listen. If you are on the fence, have a free listen to OG on You Tube and go from there. They’ve got my money and I hope that it comes out on vinyl in the future, so I can add it to my library.
Listen to OG
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