★ (pronounced Blackstar) is the twenty-sixth and final studio album by David Bowie, released on January 8th, 2016 (Bowie's 69th birthday). The album reflects a somewhat new sound for Bowie, being influenced by avant-garde jazz, Progressive Rock, experimental hip-hop acts such as Death Grips and Kendrick Lamar, and electronic acts such as Boards of Canada. Having been diagnosed with liver cancer in 2014, Bowie dedicated the album to exploring his newfound awareness of his mortality, not knowing whether or not he'd survive his battle and preparing for the possibility of him having to leave this mortal coil.
Indeed, Bowie's fears would turn out correct; while shooting the music video for "Lazarus", Bowie was informed that his cancer had become terminal. He would die on January 10, 2016, just two days after the album's release, putting an end to one of the longest and most important careers of any solo artist in the western music canon.
Already strongly received upon its release, the album became even more rapturously received after the singer's death, which made evident additional layers of meaning as people became increasingly aware of the context behind the album's creation. The record was also a significant commercial success, selling hundreds of thousands of copies in its first week of release and making Bowie the highest-selling vinyl artist of the year. Debuting at No. 1 in both the US and UK and topping the charts in 22 other countries (plus Scotland), it marked Bowie's first album to top the Billboard 200, additionally topping Billboard's Top Alternative Albums, Top Rock Albums, and Top Tastemaker Albums chartsnote . ★ would go on to become the 5th best-selling album of 2016 in the world, later being certified double-platinum in the Netherlands, platinum in the UK, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Italy, Poland, and Switzerland, and gold in the US, Germany, New Zealand, Portugal, Spain, and Sweden.
Since its release, ★'s acclaim has only continued to grow and galvanize: The A.V. Club, Mojo, Newsweek, Paste, Q, Uncut, The Village Voice, The Wire, and Rolling Stone's readers' poll would all rank it as the best album of 2016. Bowie would be posthumously awarded the 2017 Grammy Awards for "Best Alternative Music Album" and "Best Recording Package", his first competitive Grammies since 1985 and his first Grammies overall since winning the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006. On review aggregator site Rate Your Music, ★ is ranked as the second-highest-rated album of 2016, the sixth-highest-rated album of the 2010's, and the 88th highest-rated album of all time. As of 2020, it sits at No. 72 on Acclaimed Music's dynamic list of the 3000 most critically lauded albums of all time (as well as the 4th most acclaimed album of the entire 2010's). Lastly, among Bowie fans, it's widely considered both one of the artist's best albums and the perfect Grand Finale for his life and career.
Not to be confused with the hip-hop duo consisting of Mos Def and Talib Kweli (the album's title is one word; the hip-hop duo's is two) or the fictional character Black★Star.
★ was supported by three singles: the Title Track, "Lazarus", and "I Can't Give Everything Away". "Lazarus" was the last single to be released during Bowie's lifetime. On a somewhat more trivial note, "★" was, at the time of its release, the longest song to ever chart on the Billboard 100 (running just under ten minutes and peaking at No. 78) until tool broke the record with the 10:21 "Fear Inoculum" in 2019.
- "★" (9:57)
- "'Tis a Pity She Was a Whore" (4:52)
- "Lazarus" (6:22)
- "Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)" (4:40)
- "Girl Loves Me" (4:51)
- "Dollar Days" (4:44)
- "I Can't Give Everything Away" (5:47)
Seeing more but troping less; saying no but meaning yes; this is all I ever meant; that's the message that I sent:
- Animated Music Video: That for "I Can't Give Everything Away", and strictly out of necessity (as Bowie was already dead by the time it entered production). The video was directed by Jonathan Barnbrook, who designed the parent album's cover art.
- Apocalyptic Log: As Bowie didn't know whether or not he'd survive his battle with cancer during the writing and recording process (his cancer wouldn't be declared terminal until the shooting for the "Lazarus" music video), the album acts as a rumination on his mortality and uncertainty regarding his forthcoming fate.
- Ascend to a Higher Plane of Existence: What the subject of "★" goes through after his demise.
- A God Am I: The singer of "★":
- Bittersweet Ending: "I Can't Give Everything Away" is this to the album as well as David Bowie's career as a whole. He was eaten away by liver cancer, not knowing what his fate would be while recording ★, and died of the disease shortly after the album's release, but was still able to end things off with one hell of a bang. This is most heavily embodied by the closing track, "I Can't Give Everything Away"; Jonathan Barnbrook, who directed the song's music video, had this to say in regards to it:"I saw it as a celebration of David, to say that despite the adversity we face, the difficult things that happen such as David's passing, that human beings are naturally positive, they look forward and can take the good from the past and use it as something to help with the present. We are a naturally optimistic species and we celebrate the good that we are given."
- Blind Seer: Invoked by the button-eyed figure Bowie plays in the "★" and "Lazarus" videos.
- Call-Back: The harmonica on the closing track "I Can't Give Everything Away" plays the same tune as the harmonica on "A New Career in a New Town" from Bowie's 1977 album Low; fans have also cited similarities to "Never Let Me Down", "Soul Love", and "Thursday's Child". The music also becomes more reminiscent of Bowie's old styles towards the end of the album.
- Cluster F-Bomb: "Girl Loves Me", to the point where it directly led to the album being the only one in Bowie's catalog to receive a Parental Advisory sticker."Where the fuck did Monday go?...
Who the fuck's gonna mess with me?"
- Concept Album: Most songs reflect the singer's illness and impending death.
- Dead Artists Are Better: Invoked; it's possible to interpret "Lazarus" as Bowie being self-conscious about how audiences will look at his work differently after he's gone, with all the private torment and anguish that belonged to the artist and his work now becoming common property:"Look up here, I'm in heaven
I've got scars that can't be seen
I've got drama, can't be stolen
Everybody knows me now"
- Death Song: Both "★" and "Lazarus" are speculated by many to be Bowie writing his own dirge. It was confirmed the album was a Grand Finale for Bowie and a parting gift to the world. "Dollar Days" and "I Can't Give Everything Away" also address the singer's impending death.
- Dying Moment of Awesome: Bowie recorded ★ while battling a terminal case of cancer, which took his life two days after this album's official release.
- Eldritch Abomination: An otherworldly mass of tendrils appears at the end of the "★" music video.
- Epic Rocking: The title track is nearly ten minutes long, while "Lazarus" is 6 and 1/2.
- Face Death with Dignity: The album is essentially Bowie doing this, taking his impending death from cancer and turning it into a work of art.
- Fading into the Next Song/Siamese Twin Songs: The drum beat from "I Can't Give Everything Away" starts towards the end of "Dollar Days" before the latter song finishes fading away, in something of an example of a song transition that could be considered halfway between these two tropes.
- Grand Finale: For Bowie's life, as confirmed by the album's producer Tony Visconti. However, it was also revealed that after recording ★, Bowie planned to make one more album, and demoed five tracks for it before his death. Bowie called Visconti a week before his death saying he wanted to make another album, which somehow makes the album's subject even harsher since it makes it plain that, despite ★'s peaceful ending, Bowie still wasn't ready to go.
- Literary Allusion Title: The title "'Tis a Pity She Was a Whore" is a reference to a 17th century drama by John Ford (not that one) entitled 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, which is infamous for featuring transgressive themes such as BrotherSister Incest.
- Loudness War: The album's mastering is arguably its only significant flaw; it comes out to DR5, making it probably Bowie's loudest album, and is badly clipped. Even the vinyl and iTunes editions are plagued by clipping.
- Love Martyr: "'Tis a Pity She Was a Whore" has one as its subject.
- Longest Song Goes Last: Inverted. The title song runs for nearly 10 minutes, but it's the opening of the album.
- Lucky Charms Title: The official title of the album and its opening track are the black star symbol itself, chosen over simply writing out "Blackstar" because ★ is a Unicode-standard symbol supported by the vast majority of digital platforms in music distribution, playback, writing, and webpage creation (including this very wiki).
- Mind Screw: The song ★ which doesn't so much sound like the singer's having a mental breakdown as that he's already insane to begin with. Not to mention many of the lines in the song is full of bizarre symbolism.
- Minimalistic Cover Art:
- The album's artwork for the CD and digital versions features a black star on a white background, and below it there are parts of a star meant to spell out "B O W I E".
- The vinyl cover, in light grey, features the star as a cutout, revealing the record (with an all-black picture label and inside a transparent PVC inner sleeve) beneath. With the record removed, the black paper behind the cutout reveals a hidden picture of a starfield when the foldout sleeve is held up to a light source.
- Neoclassical Punk Zydeco Rockabilly: Jazz fusion, progressive rock, krautrock, modern electronic music, hard rock, avant garde and Bowie's famed art rock and glam rock sounds thrown in a blender.
- Bowie also cited experimental hip hop artists like Death Grips and Kendrick Lamar as influences, and it shows in some of the beats.
- He also cited the Metallica and Lou Reed collaboration Lulu as an influence. They do happen to share similar lyrical themes, likely because both Reed and Bowie were at death's door.
- New Sound Album: Jazz fusion, with influence from Avant-garde Music, Hip-Hop, Krautrock, Progressive Rock, Electronic Music, and several other styles. Some of these were styles Bowie had explored before, but some were entirely new to his oeuvre.
- Precision F-Strike: "'Tis a Pity She Was a Whore" randomly throws in the phrase "she kept my cock" on only one occasion, contrasting the Cluster F-Bomb of "Girl Loves Me" and the lack of R-rated profanity elsewhere on the album.
- Rearrange the Song: "'Tis a Pity She Was a Whore" and "Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)" were originally recorded for the 2014 compilation album Nothing Has Changed, and were released together as a single with the latter song as the A-side to promote it; of these two, "Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)" was the only one featured on the album, with "'Tis a Pity She Was a Whore" relegated to B-Side status. Bowie re-recorded both songs from the ground-up for ★; while the 2014 and 2016 versions of both songs are fairly similar in style and instrumentation, both songs are noticeably shorter on ★ than on Nothing Has Changed (with "'Tis a Pity She Was a Whore" going from 5:26 to 4:52 and "Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)" going from 7:24 to 4:40).
- "Girl Loves Me" features lines sung in "Nadsat", the language from A Clockwork Orange, one of Bowie's favorite novels. Some of the slang words used in the track are also adopted from The '70s gay subculture, while others are of Bowie's own invention.
- The title itself might also be one; there exists an obscure Elvis Presley song titled "Black Star", which features lyrics about how "Every man has a black star [...] over his shoulder / And when a man sees his black star / He knows his time has come". Given that the album was released on January 8th (the birthday of both Elvis and Bowie), a widely reported theory was that this Bowie album was named for the Elvis song.
- It's also been suggested that the title was a reference to the British TV show Peaky Blinders, of which Bowie was a fan (and whose writers are clearly fans of this album, since "Lazarus" was used in a third series episode). On the show, the phrase "Black Star Day" or a black star drawn on a calendar marks the day someone is to die.
- The reference to the chestnut tree in "Girl Loves Me" is very likely another of Bowie's 1984 references ("Under the spreading chestnut tree, I sold you and you sold me").
- Something Completely Different: Bowie wanted to create an album that was a departure from his previous release, The Next Day, leading to him ditching his band and instead hiring jazz musicians to play rock music.
- Sophisticated as Hell:
- "'Tis a Pity She Was a Whore" is partly written in Antiquated Linguistics befitting the title, but starts with the line "Man she punched me like a dude."
- Lazarus is a very bittersweet song and is written normally, until Bowie drops "I was looking for yo' ass" out of nowhere.
- Textless Album Cover: It features only the titular black star as well as star symbols that can be interpreted to spell out "Bowie", making this an odd Zig Zagged Trope. It's also one of the few Bowie sleeves that doesn't have his Face on the Cover, and the only one to lack his likeness whatsoever (discounting the cover art◊ for the original 1970 US release of The Man Who Sold the World, though the art◊ for the 1971 UK release is considered the canonical one anyways).
- Whole Plot Reference: "Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)" is one to 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, the title of which was also the namesake for "'Tis a Pity She's a Whore". Perhaps not coincidentally, both songs are re-recordings of tracks initially recorded and released as a single to promote the Nothing Has Changed compilation in 2014.