In the 15 years since Talib Kweli and Yasiin Bey (then Mos Def) released their hip-hop breakthrough together under the name Black Star, the MCs have each issued an abundance of music while maintaining only spurts of progress on material as a duo. Despite the occasional late-night TV performance and their set at last year's Bonnaroo, fans should not expect the follow-up album to Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star this year, Kweli tells Rolling Stone, due to his and Bey's devotion to individual projects.
Meanwhile, with almost a dozen solo and collaborative albums to his credit, Kweli will release Prisoner of Conscious on April 23rd. He tells Rolling Stone the title reflects his attempt to shed, or at least redefine, the "socially conscious rapper" label pinned to him since the Nineties.
"At the center of being socially conscious is your community – it's where you come from, what type of person that it made you, and how you give back to that. And it's a cycle," he said in a phone interview. "With me it's like, 'Oh, he's a great lyricist,' but they don't focus on the music. I think it's because of how I've been sold and how I've been marketed as some sort of poster boy for underground rap."
Kweli now controls that branding as an independent artist, and he will release music, including an album from his Reflection Eternal partner Hi-Tek, through Javotti, his own label. Four years in the making, Prisoner of Conscious represents a more nuanced selection of songs, which feature guests including Kendrick Lamar, Nelly and Busta Rhymes. It retains the live instrumentation Kweli incorporated on The Beautiful Struggle and Eardrum; a sample of Eric B & Rakim's "Paid in Full" for the Trend-produced song "Turnt Up" prevented a scheduled November release. The delay allowed Kweli time to "rethink" the album, and he tacked on two more songs in December.
"I tried to focus more on the musicality of the album and make decisions based more on how the music feels, rather than make decisions based on what I wanted to say," Kweli said. "This is the most time I've ever spent on a record."
Work began on Prisoner of Conscious began well before Kweli released Gutter Rainbows in 2011, and he has since juggled several projects, including various mixtapes and albums with Idle Warship, his group with Res. Meanwhile, Bey has continued his acting career with a role on Dexter. Though he hasn't released an album since The Ecstatic in 2009, Bey has appeared on stage – most recently with Common last month at the Bring Leonard Peltier Home event in New York – and is working on music with producer Mannie Fresh. (Bey could not be reached for this article.)
Black Star's future depends on timing and schedules. One night in late 2011, while listening to Aretha Franklin records after performing together, Bey and Kweli decided to explore making an Aretha-themed mixtape. The next day they cut four tracks, among them "Fix Up" and "You Already Knew." But other commitments have since taken priority, Kweli said, adding, "I would love to get back into it whenever he's ready."