There are many ways for a talented MC to establish himself (or herself… but, not really) in rap music. Some may work better as part of a duo or group; some may find that perfect chemistry with one producer and stick to a formula; some may prefer to work with multiple producers and try to go for different sounds. Yet, not many have attempted to try their hand at all three of these — in fact, the only name that comes to my mind is Talib Kweli. Kweli first made a name for himself on Rawkus Records’ landmark release, 1998′s Black Star, rhyming alongside Mos Def. In 2000, he and producer Hi-Tek, known collectively as Reflection Eternal, put out their only LP to date, the superb Train Of Thought. Since then, he has released 2 solo albums, 2002′s Quality and 2004′s Beautiful Struggle, working with the likes of Kanye West, Just Blaze, the late J Dilla and the Neptunes, creating music on par with his past collaborative successes (though most would agree that Beautiful Struggle was a bit of a step down from Quality).
Though Kweli’s reputation is more than established — tack on a name-dropping from Jay-Z in The Black Album‘s most noted lyric for good measure — putting out his 3rd solo album, Eardrum (in stores July 24th), has been a struggle… and not a beautiful one. Kweli’s tendency to try to fit more words than necessary into each bar has made him a bit of an acquired taste, and Eardrum‘s first single, “Listen” (which was released almost a year ago, and is placed as the final track on the album), has gotten a rather luke-warm reception. But, with a record label of his own (Blacksmith Records, which boasts a roster including Jean Grae and Cali veterans Strong Arm Steady), and a newer single, the Hi-Tek-produced “More Or Less”, which is vintage Kweli, the time is now or never. There’s only so much that promotion can do, anyways — those that know know, and those that don’t know will hopefully find out what they’ve been missing sooner or later.
Eardrum starts off with “Everything Man”, a laid-back Madlib production that uniquely changes tempos at the hook, and (much like “More Or Less”) is Kweli at his purest and most natural — not trying to define himself, or trying to reach any specific audience. His opening bars on the smooth Pete Rock-produced “Electrify” illustrate this further:
“Kweli, you should rap about this, you should rap about that/ Any more suggestions? You in the back/ Yeah, you/ You should rap on beat, you should rap more street/ And never ever get your mack on, please/”
Kweli has never been the charismatic sort of MC who could make a good song out of a bland beat (unlike someone like Pharoahe Monch, for example), so solid production is vital for him to make a great album, and Eardrum delivers beautifully in this regard. In addition to the names I’ve already mentioned, Kanye West (“In The Mood”), Just Blaze (the church-choir’d-up “Hostile Gospel”), and Will.I.Am (“Say Something” featuring Jean Grae, which samples Lords Of The Underground’s classic “Funky Child”) all add something fresh to the album. However, Kweli remains the star of the show, and the effort he puts forth lyrically is definitely attention-grabbing.
Probably the most intriguing track on Eardrum is “Country Cousins” featuring UGK. The beat, provided by A Kid Called Roots (a relative no-name amongst the many star producers on here), fits perfectly not only for both Talib’s and Bun B’s speedier flows, but also for Pimp C’s slower delivery as well. The trio bridge the gap between New York and the South, bigging up their influences from all areas. It’s crazy to think that if this collaboration had taken place some time around 2000, with Kweli getting his buzz off of Reflection Eternal and UGK fresh off of “Big Pimpin’” fame, it likely would have been frowned upon by both sides’ fan bases.
In a year where mixtapes seem to be getting more recognition than albums (i.e. Kanye, Lil’ Wayne, Prodigy), Talib Kweli has dropped a gem with Eardrum. The title couldn’t be more fitting — this is definitely an album worth hearing.
Download: Talib Kweli – “Listen”
Download: Talib Kweli – “More Or Less” featuring Dion