Ever since emerging as a member of Black Star in the late 1990s, Talib Kweli is one of the few artists making commercially viable music that matters. The Brooklyn bred rapper's hard-hitting music has been able to educate and entertain simultaneously. So it is no wonder that at the peak of their fame, both Jay-Z and 50 Cent named Talib Kweli as one of their favorite rappers.
With Ear Drum, his first album released on his own Blacksmith Music and his sixth album overall, Kweli has delivered his career-defining work, a polished collection showcasing his advanced lyricism and his penchant for picking music that resonates long after the song ends. "The image of the ear and of the drum are powerful enough by themselves, but when you put them together, it's an instrument that's in your body that helps you hear," he explains. "They're also two very simple, yet powerful words. I wanted to focus on finding a sound that makes you move, and that's where the word 'Ear Drum' popped in my head."
Throughout Ear Drum, Kweli delivers powerful music that sparks your intellect and makes your body move. He teams with Reflection Eternal partner Hi-Tek on "More Or Less." Over pounding drums and a minimalistic groove, Kweli makes brash declarations on how to improve music specifically and American society in general. "A statement like, we need 'more rap songs that stress purpose/With less misogyny and less curses/Let's put more depth in our verses,' I haven't made bold, blatant statements since that like 'Manifesto.' There are fans of mine that really appreciate those statements because there are times when those statements need to be made."
An equally bold Ear Drum moment comes on "Country Cousins," which features Kweli trading verses with UGK and Raheem DeVaughn. Over a soulful beat accented by brassy horns, Kweli, Bun B and Pimp C talk about the reality of their experiences growing up in New York and Texas, respectively. "People have the perception of what an East Coast artist sounds like, who he's supposed to be listening to and what he likes, and what a Down South artist sounds like," Kweli explains. "There's preconceived notions and that's really what the song with Bun and Pimp C is about, the preconceived notions between East Coast artists and Down South artists."
Throughout Ear Drum, Kweli makes a point to explore new topics, collaborate with a variety of artists and rap over distinctively innovative production. It is part of Kweli's growth as an artist and as a person. "We need to challenge our audience but we also need to challenge ourselves to know that whatever our new experiences are, we can write about them, be creative and bring that to an audience without them feeling alienated," he says.
Long-time Talib Kweli followers will say the same thing about him. Since his stellar debut with Mos Def as Black Star, Kweli has been one of rap's most exceptional and consistent artists. Released in 2000, Reflection Eternal, the RIAA-certified gold album with Hi-Tek, was one of the most acclaimed albums of the year. In 2002, smash single "Get By," the biting political commentary "The Proud" and the insightful examination of America's gun culture on "Gun Music" made Quality a landmark recording and Kweli's second gold album. Subsequent recordings in 2004 (The Beautiful Struggle) and 2005 (Right About Now) solidified his status as one of rap's most talented and important voices.
Now, after establishing himself as a rap visionary, Kweli along with long-time manager Corey Smyth launched Blacksmith Music. The pair signed an exclusive deal with Warner Bros. to market, promote, and distribute the music of Blacksmith artists. Following Kweli's release on Blacksmith/WBR there will be a new solo album from Jean Grae, the critically acclaimed South African-born female rapper who is among the most respected female rappers in the history of the genre. Rolling Stone called her "the best kept secret on New York&..39;s indie hip-hop scene," while XXL, Spin, Village Voice, URB and others have labeled her an artist to watch. Strong Arm Steady, a forthcoming Blacksmith/WBR release, is a super group whose members are platinum rapper and Pimp My Ride host Xzibit, Los Angeles underground star Phil The Agony, lyrical assassin Krondon and San Diego rap pioneer Mitchy Slick. Strong Arm Steady has been one of the few West Coast acts to build a rabid fanbase through mixtapes.
Kweli hopes Blacksmith will create a movement with Jean Grae and Strong Arm Steady, much as his own music has. "With Blacksmith, I want it to be a flag that everyone can wave," he says. "I want to be packing shows and I want people to feel like they were up on Jean Grae and Strong Arm Steady before anybody else was."
In the mean time, the lyrically and sonically potent Ear Drum demonstrates that strong, powerful messages can serve as the backbone for music at its best. "The vast majority of my subject matter focuses on black self-love, black self esteem, black self worth," Kweli says. "That translates to other communities because if you're a human being, it doesn't matter what color you're talking about. You've been through some sort of struggle and you can apply it to your own life."
Interview by Albert "Mac" McCluster III
THE QUALITY OF TALIB
Talib Kweli, taking Hip Hop to another level
Talib Kweli has had many acclaimed recordings and achievements, no album exemplifies Kweli's tremendous ability better than his new album "Quality". The disc is a compelling sign of his artistic and personal maturation.
The difference in Talib's sound isn't a change in style but rather an emcee evolving. Quality will definitely be a notable album. Some people are questioning the production when they compare it to "Train of Thought", but Talib's lyrics are always on point and tend to outshine any and every beat he will spit on.
One Sunday I was just flipping through the millions of cable channels and I happened to catch a glimpse of the video for "Waiting For The DJ". The video which was airing on MTV2 is simplification in itself....featuring Talib and various Hip Hop/Neo-soul artists and it rolled with the groove and the feel of the song.
The video made me want to find the new album, and I was more than excited to find out when it would be released. I've loved Talib ever since his debut, and that love only grew when I got the Black Star album. He was great on the Spitkickers Tour, and I couldn't wait to get the Reflection joint... I loved that when it finally came out, and I still contest that to be one of the top 20 CDs in my collection (we'll argue over that list in a later article).
This new joint though is as great as all his other work. I like the general vibe of the 1st released single "Waitin for the DJ," and his contribution to the "Brown Sugar" soundtrack is hot as always.
Talib's new album "Quality" is exactly that...Quality, it has become his standard. I got to talk with Talib about the new album and his goings on since our last talk waaay back in March 2000, when he toured with Erykah Badu and Musiq (Soulchild).
This time he was on tour in Detroit...running with Common, Gang Starr and Floetry...the young man turned the show out
Was up Talib?
TK: Chillin', chillin'...enjoying the road and the peeps.
You have definitely raised the bar as far as mc skills...always spittin' knowledge rhymes. What were your goals on this album?
TK: The main focus is to show the eternal reflection of hiphop music and hiphop culture. I not only wanted to showcase lyrical skills but also continue to drop knowledge on the hiphop community. I'm looking to elevate through my music, and through my music I educate.
Your first 12" release for Rawkus Records was in 1997, you've highly acclaimed partnerships with Mos Def ( Black Star) and Hi-Tek (Reflection Eternal)and your name is been synonymous with high-grade, progressive music. Have you set a standard for Neo-Soul/Hip Hop?
TK: I'm not looking to set a standard...but, I believe I have offered a challenge to others with my work. I teamed with Bilal for "Waitin' For The DJ"...we were looking for a vibe on that particular cut...not neccessarily a standard. I believe that Hip Hop has many differentlevels...I am just attempting to get MY version to the surface of this big mesh of music.
Quality features collaborations with some of the music industry's most in-demand artists and producers. Tell me who all you worked with on this CD.
TK: Oh, I got mad love on the album...let me think, Kanye West, from Jay-Z's camp, he contributed three slammin' tracks ("Get By", "Guerilla Monsoon Rap", and "Good To You") while Jay Dee, who has wrote for Janet Jackson and Common...he teams with Vinia Mojica, Res and a Rawkus newcomer, a cat called Novel on two more ("Where Do We Go" and "Stand To The Side"). Pharaohe Monch, and Black Thought hooked a Native Tongue inspired supertrack on "Guerilla Monsoon Rap". I have soooo much love on this album...i don't want to forget anyone...I got additional production from Megahertz, DJ Quik, Ayatollah, and DJ Scratch.
For those who are looking...wil Hi-Tek be on tour with you?
TK: Right now...he's handling business on his solo projects...right now...we have no "real" tour plans chiseled in stone.
When can we look to see you in Europe?
TK: That's a good question...I love Europe...so, i know I will be over there probabaly by late spring-summer 2003. But, I'm definitely doing a European tour.
Good looking out and thanks for taking the time with me for this interview, Talib.
TK: Always a pleasure...