Artist: Talib Kweli
Label: Mic Club
Rating: 9 / 10
Talib Kweli is one of those special artists who come along very rarely. 2000’s stunning €œTrain of Thought € album was the end result of his collaboration with DJ Hi-Tek under the moniker Reflection Eternal. And his work with Mos Def produced one of hip-hop €™s most recently stunning albums, €œBlack Star €. Add to these critically acclaimed works Kweli €™s contributions to respected projects like the “Lyricist Lounge” and Rawkus’ “Soundbombing” series and it is not difficult to understand quite why there are such high expectations for this Brooklyn-born artist.
So the furore over Kweli €™s debut €œQuality €, released in early November 2002, is natural. For the project Kweli recruited a high-class guest list to help him succeed the hype, and surprisingly ditched Hi-Tek as his main producer instead opting for donations from producers like DJ Scratch, Kanye West, DJ Quik and Ayatollah. Can he deliver, though?
In short, yes. Talib Kweli represents much of what can possibly be good about hip-hop in a year where there has been much pessimism about the state of rap. He balances intelligent, worldly subject matter with brilliant emceeing skills: never staying restricted to one lyrical theme. In the past, Kweli has always had real problems deciding whether he wants to primarily be a conscious artist or a battle rapper. Luckily, with €œQuality €, he seems to have settled for both. ‘The Proud’ is the lyrical crescendo of the album. On this sombre, Ayatollah-produced track, Kweli deals intelligently with the whole myriad of issues that enveloped the world after the events of September the 11th, and he angrily (but still intelligently) makes the link that the horrific events that day can €™t hide years of oppression and maltreatment. Like any strong emcee, he can condense important points into a couple of lines with some impressive wordplay:
€œNiggaz with knowledge is more dangerous than niggaz with guns
They make the guns easy to get and try to keep niggaz dumb. €
While none of Kweli €™s lyrics elsewhere on €œQuality € reach the same Mount Everest heights of focus as found here, he still maintains a consistently impressive worldliness and articulates this in a manner that separates him from the average tight emcee, throughout this LP. ‘Get By’ deals with people struggling to €˜get by €™ in life, over Roc-a-Fella beat-slinger Kanye West €™s twinkling piano melodies. ‘Joy’ again has wonderful Ayatollah production supporting it, with dramatic soulful female accompaniment lifted from Aretha Franklin €™s ‘I Get High’ and a truly €˜joyous €™ string sample driving things. Mos Def then jumps in on the chorus as Kweli skilfully narrates his happiness at becoming a father, only beef with this is that it would have been nice to hear verse from Mos.
While these introspective, intelligent tracks make Talib Kweli an impressive artist, it by no means makes him completely different to the norm. Artists like Common and Q-Tip have been fuelling these kinds of lyrics for years now. No, what separates Kweli is that he can also do sensitive. Yes, rap can be sensitive, just most of the time it comes off as cheesy. Not on €œQuality €, though. ‘Where Do we Go’ is a tribute to the recently passed Weldon Irvine with guest Res €™ stunning voice blending nicely with the sombre beat and Kweli €™s emotional rhymes. ‘Talk to You’ and ‘Won €™t You Stay’ are both love songs: and both tracks are equally well pulled off. Normally, I hate these kinds of tracks on a rap album, but Kweli successfully negotiates any traps of cheesiness and his smooth, soulful beats are surprisingly listenable.
The lead single ‘Waiting for the DJ’ basically falls inbetween all the other styles found on this album. This classy track features determined strings and keys, and Kweli flows ridiculously smoothly over this nice arrangement, obviously dedicating it to the art of deejaying. Soul crooner Bilal adds some quirky silkiness to the chorus, making this a very enjoyable track.
But if you are a fan of Canibus, or Wu-Tang, or Ras Kass, you may have been getting progressively worried by the fact I haven €™t described too many ‘traditional’ battle rap tracks. But don €™t fret. You see, Kweli is also one of 2002 €™s hottest emceeing prospects. And he does not let this go unnoticed. Top of the bill is ‘Guerrilla Monsoon Rap’, which is an all-star collaboration with Black Thought and Pharoahe Monch. Kayne West pops up again and lends some real atmosphere to the beat with long gypsy violin strings. Kweli may occasionally sound as masculine as a 10 year old girl, or Dru Down, lol, he more than proves here that he is one of the tightest in the game. With a smooth flow and engaging delivery, his lyrics are varied taking on different rhyme schemes, and they are always tight.
This is reinforced by some of the album’s solid tracks. Cuts like the theme-anthem uplifting nature of ‘Shock Body’, with DJ Scratch €™s brassy trumpets providing triumphant accompaniment, find Kweli €™s raucous braggadocio stealing the show:
€œCats taking Vicatin pills to numb the pain that they feeling
Pertaining to stealing my rhymes finding their brains on the ceiling
I’m blowing their minds wide open when I’m flowing I’m fine
Hey yo my whole style banging like I’m throwing up signs €.
‘Rush’ is really rock-influenced, with pulsating, driving Megahertz electric guitars ripping a hole through the roof and Kweli €™s powerful battle rhymes kicking butt:
€œYou get hit like a deer standin’ still in the light
I’m spillin’ it like, I ain’t never had a meal in my life
Feed my family with my pen, it’s so real what I write €
and ‘Put it in the Air’ is a really stellar collaboration with DJ Quik (you may also have heard this one from “Soundbombing III”).
With not a weak track, €œQuality € is arguably rap album of the year. I still can €™t comprehend how Tweli Kweli has actually evolved on this album: his lyrics, his brain, his flow, have all dramatically improved: in fact he really has become €œthe illest emcee around €. Add stunning production, and €œQuality € is basically what it says it is. I would give it 5 stars, but nothing is perfect. Go and pick it up anyway.