[7 December 2005]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Ambition has been Talib Kweli’s gift and curse. The more he tries to broaden his sound, the more unique his music gets, but also the more contentious. The two albums under his name alone, Quality and The Beautiful Struggle, both have about them a weight of importance, stemming mostly from his attempts to take his music and blow it up—make its sound bigger and shinier. Quality‘s fuller R&B sound led to his biggest hit, the Kanye West-produced “Get By”, yet also drew some concern from the more underground-than-thou of his fans, who weren’t ready to hear Kweli join DJ Quik over a stripclub beat, or set a journalistic portrait of gun prevalence to a track that musically echoed the toughness of someone likely to pull the trigger. For The Beautiful Struggle Kweli stepped up the game of setting his thoughtful and emotional rhymes over glitzy tracks loaded with R&B hooks. The voices of dissent grew louder, even though the album was another unique step out of the box for Kweli, a surprisingly music-driven album for an MC always praised first and foremost for his verbal skills.
The Beautiful Struggle‘s release came with a flurry of hype that helped mark it as “important”, perhaps setting it up for failure. An early version of the album was leaked on the Internet long before it eventually came out, leading Kweli to change up some of the tracks and release the pre-album mixtape The Beautiful Mix CD, featuring some of the excised tracks. In 2005 Kweli is again using a mix CD to react to the pressures of making music. Instead of laboring over a new album, he’s taken some new songs, added them to some leftover songs that didn’t make his last album, and released them abruptly, without much fanfare, calling the collection Right About Now: The Official Sucka Free Mix CD. This “mix CD”, though, is being distributed almost as widely as a proper album, though Blacksmith Music, Kweli’s own label imprint through Koch. Its status as a “mix CD” is mostly about the tone of the release, then. In avoidance of all the drama involved in releasing “the next Talib Kweli album”, he’s released a CD that doesn’t carry with it any level of importance, that isn’t marked by an ambition to make a big splash or cement a reputation as “classic”. Instead it’s a modest affair, with a tone that says “here’s some more music for you, do with it what you will.”
Right About Now is a pleasure when it’s taken for what it is: not a big statement or a fully polished work of art, but a collection of what could have been and might be. It doesn’t showcase “the many sides of Kweli”, or try hard to provoke thought or incite a reaction, as the previous two albums did, but instead merely offers a handful of tracks where beats and rhymes are the focus, where it’s just about finding a beat that sounds nice and throwing some clever rhymes over it.
The beats are stripped-down, rough, and simple, without any complicated textures or stylish dressings. They’re mostly of a crowd-pleasing variety, like rock anthems that encourage you to pump your fist and forget about everything else. In this setting Kweli is most likely to throw his energy into boasting, or to rhyme in similes and metaphors. Most representative of the CD’s lyrics overall is probably “Who Got It”, where Kweli speaks almost exclusively in similes, each one goofier and more creative than the one before it (example: “these rappers is more annoying than camera phones”).
Right About Now has a business-like but playful demeanor. It’s all about just throwing down over beats, and seeing what happens. That gives the album a consistent level of energy, and a refreshing lack of pretension, but also makes some of the tracks rather interchangeable. The beats are generally of the same style. They all propel the music forward and get your head nodding, but few have any complexity to them. Similarly the more Kweli keeps the focus on rhyming for rhyming’s sake, the less unique he seems as an MC.
Kweli impresses most when giving the impression that he has something he desperately needs to get off his chest. There’s a fire driving his rhymes on the best tracks, whether it’s the disarmingly emotional “Ms. Hill”, an open letter to Lauryn Hill offering support in times of trouble, or “The Beast”, where Kweli and newcomer Papoose offer an analysis of evil that looks both outward and inward. An even more dynamic team-up, not surprisingly, emerges on “Supreme Supreme” featuring Mos Def. The beat seems standard, and their approach very showmanlike, like they’re trying first and foremost to get a crowd moving. But even years after their sole album together as Black Star, there’s still a certain magic inherent in their voices together on a track. Both offer rugged and attention-getting verses, with Kweli’s including a particularly memorable dis that resonates with ambiguity: “I turn on the radio / I’m hearing dead men talking”.
As is often the case with Kweli, some of the most forceful tracks on Right About Now are the subtler ones. The low-key “Two & Two” strikes a uniquely personal note, as quiet-storm singing sets up a soothing atmosphere for Kweli to rhyme mellow and introspectively within. “Roll Off Me” finds Jay Dilla weaving a fresh bass-and-piano soundscape around Kweli rhyming about struggles both personal and global. Like “Ms. Hill”, that track is marked by Kweli’s heartfelt desire to say something. In this case his message amounts to a statement that no matter how difficult life gets, he can take it. It’s an expression given more emotional resonance through his particularly raspy and exasperated-sounding delivery.
The CD-opening title track sets up the story behind Right About Now, with Kweli recounting his career this far, setting the tale in the context of record label problems. “This where I’m at right about now”, he declares. Take that not as a statement that Right About Now is filled with brand-new tracks, though, as the liner notes reveal that several are Beautiful Struggle outtakes . Instead the CD is an attempt to take audience expectations of his music and ratchet them back a level. It’s a statement that right now Kweli isn’t into doing the publicity drive for a new album, isn’t into endlessly reworking tracks, and doesn’t want to think about what he needs to do to make a hit record. He’d rather just take what he has and get it out there. That makes Right About Now a chance to witness Kweli’s talents in a rawer form, to hear his music without worrying about whether the album’s a classic, without dwelling on whether Kweli has sold out or fallen off.