Rap music, for the most part, gets a bad rap. It’s become an overtly visual, gimmicky art form over the last decade, providing most of what passes for MTV’s numbskull repetition and making multi-millionaires out of shamefully ego-driven profiteers like Master P or Puffy (or Diddy or whatever he calls himself). What you usually don’t hear enough about are guys like Talib Kweli.
Kweli broke through in the late ‘90s on the Beat Junkies’ Lyricist Lounge/Soundbombing mixtape projects, combining a smooth, distinct delivery with an as yet unmatched gift for intricate, head-scratchingly metaphorical rhymes. He then wisely hooked up with his old buddy Mos Def to all but redefine underground rap as half of the acclaimed Black Star project. The critical and commercial success of that amazing record has since forced the industry to pay closer attention to independent and underground hip-hop. These days, with three solo records now under his belt, a featured guest slot on Kanye West’s recent record-of-the-year contender, and a hotly anticipated Black Star reunion upcoming, Kweli has become one of the leading voices in the “backpack-rap” set. He brought the weight and expectation that accompanies such reverence with him to Grand Rapids, Michigan, of all places, for a Friday night matinee performance.
He was greeted by a large, rather boisterous crowd, and immediately warmed them up with a hot new track from his upcoming record The Beautiful Struggle. Rap shows are often bogged down by bad mixes and mic envy—I mean, how many times have you seen a bunch of dudes up there bumping into each other and hollering and you’re standing there wondering what the fuck they’re shouting about? Talib manages to project his voice, and his rhymes, right through the mix. You hear everything. The classic tracks came in a flash—“Respiration”, “Too Late”, “Re:Definition” and the aforementioned Kanye cut “Get Em High” were tossed out in quick succession, giving the crowd a taste of some of Talib’s most notorious flows while also providing him the rare chance to freestyle as he filled in Common, Mos Def and Kanye’s verses with off-the-cuff local shoutouts. “The Blast”, his most successful single to date, brought the house into a shouting unison, “You pronounce my name(KWELI!)/ start the (PARTY!)/ my crew hot/feel these two shots/like the blast from a double barrel(SHOTTIE!)” Talib’s rhymes sink right under the beat the way Rakim or Big Daddy Kane’s used to, pushing it, as rhythmic as the drums themselves. He book-ended new track “Around My Way” with a snapshot series of 80’s R&B classics like “Wanna Be Startin Somethin” “Me Myself and I” and “Let’s Go Crazy” before dropping Bambataa’s classic “Planet Rock” beat into a funky tribute to GR native son Al Green—Talib passionately repeating “I love Al Green!” to a roomful of folk who, naturally, all love Al Green as well. Now that I think about it, who doesn’t love Al Green?
The set closer, Reflection Eternal’s “Move Somethin”, brought everyone front and center as they obligingly answered Kweli’s plea to “get em up!” By this point everyone was completely sucked into it all, won over by this man’s earnest charm, not to mention the plethora of irresistible hooks and beats being thrust upon them. A brief backstage pause was observed before he returned onstage for the encore, blending hand-drums and the gentle, organic strains of his classic “African Dream” into a new track, “Lonely People”, a song that, like many before it, use “Eleanor Rigby” as square one. I’m sure you can imagine the swaying sing-along that brought the evening to a close—(“All of the lonely people/Where do they all come from?”)—somewhat played, sure, but it was kind of refreshing seeing the hip-hop generation joining together, crooning an old Sir Paul lyric. Too Short was right, dammit. You don’t need “thirty million dancers and a big ol’ band” to be a good rapper. What you do need is a quick mind, an even quicker tongue, and an appreciation for what came before you. Talib Kweli is doing it the right way and gaining much respect in the process.