"It ain't commercial or underground, it's true," goes one line on Talib
Kweli’s career grew out of the so-called underground, as his early singles and the classic Mos and Def are Talib Kweli Are Black Star album were widely loved by serious hip-hop fans and critics but got ignored by the more mainstream music outlets. 2001’s Reflection Eternal album, by Kweli and his DJ pal Hi-Tek, cemented his status with fans without getting your average person on the street any closer to knowing his name. So the backstory for Quality is Kweli’s status as an MC’s MC, an idol to the diehard hip-hop fans, as well as the fact that both of his previous albums were billed as “Kweli and ”. Quality is his next chance to really show what he can do, to make a real impression.
The truth is that the “underground” and “commercial” division is a false one, that where an artist is placed in listeners’ minds often has less to do with the actual music than what record labels and cliques they’re associated with. It’s an unfortunate situation for an artist to be inyou want to sell more records, you want more people to hear what you do, yet if you change your sound too much you risk losing your audience. That said, it’s clear from Quality that Kweli’s approach to reaching an audience is to stay true to himself while broadening his musical palette to include more joyous soul choruses and sensuous R&B hooks. That approach feels less like a move toward what’s popular today than a move toward combining Kweli’s style with the music from all time periods that he loves. The songs on Quality are flavored with the history of black musicsoul, rock, gospel, jazz yet retain a sense of new, fresh hip-hop. Kweli manages to tap into the stream of bright, catchy music that everyday people can listen to all day long while also pushing himself in an even rawer hip-hop direction.
“Rush” kicks off the album with energy, as Kweli comes out spitting rough rhymes over a Jimi Hendrix-marching band backing track reminiscent of Busta Rhymes’ overlooked Anarchy album. That segues into a song that’s even more guaranteed to wake you up, the joyous soul-gospel number “Get By”. It’s a smart, vivacious song that’s about the things people rely on to get them through life, yet is also an excellent example of the same, a song that will make you feel happy to be alive.
This first section of Quality is in a way all like that, with sounds that’ll send pulses of energy through your body and get you on your feet. There’s “Shock Body”, a track that feels both futurist and retro, with psych-soul vocals and a danceable beat. It’s followed by “Gun Music”, which takes a journalistic approach to the prevalence of gun violence and mixes it with a rugged reggae-flavored track, and “Waitin’ for the DJ”, the snappy, feel-good single with a soulful hook from Bilal. And those lead into perhaps the most uplifting of them all: “Joy”, an encapsulation of how Kweli felt from the birth of his two children. Kweli approaches the verses of that song, which each tell the story of where he was and how he felt when his kids were born, like he’s talking to his best friend. And Mos Def hangs around in the background, not kicking verses that would raise the song’s hipness cache but echoing his friend’s feelings with a, “I know how you feel, Brother Kwa I know how you feel.”
Quality is filled with songs that are ripe for the radio, at least in an ideal world where radio paid any attention to songs. “Won’t You Stay”, featuring Kendra Ross, and the Eddie Kendricks remake “Talk to You (Lil’ Darlin), featuring Bilal, are collaborations that have an honesty and openness missing from all of the R&B-meets-hip-hop duets all over MTV. “Get By” and “Waitin’ for the DJ” are accessible enough that I could imagine grandmas tapping their feet to the beat while their grandchildren dance to the music. And for fans of tough, raw hip-hop there’s the stunning “Guerrilla Monsoon Rap”, a playful yet hardcore cut matching Kweli with Black Thought and Pharoah Monch, and “Put It in the Air”, a typically salacious DJ Quik disco-ized duet.
For all of the album’s “crossover potential”, as record execs might call it (or “everyday people” quality, as I prefer), this is also straight-up hip-hop that features one of the sharpest MCs around. Kweli has a way with words, and no track here is a letdown. Whether he’s showing off his skills over an energetic beat or tapping into his poetic side, he’s at the top of his game. Kweli’s an ace lyricist, too. Part of what initially drew fans to him was his deep side, the politically aware, inquisitive, rebel-with-a-heart side. While that side of his personality is integrated into everything he does, it especially shines here on some of the more serious, down-tempo tracks in the album’s second half.
Especially effective are a trio of introspective songs: “The Proud”, “Where Do We Go” and “Stand to the Side”. The first is Kweli’s topical song, dealing with his thoughts on America post-9/11. By saying exactly how he feels, Kweli approaches current events in a balanced yet forthright way. He isn’t afraid to call out the police for the way they’ve treated his people, and to express his reservations about the way the police have been celebrated in the wake of 9/11. But he also is quick to praise the people that he thinks deserve praise (the rescue workers, for example) and express the sorrow that he feels needs to be expressed, while at the same time attacking hypocrisy, blind patriotism, and a President who doesn’t care about the people. “Where Do We Go”, featuring Res, and “Stand to the Side”, featuring Novel and Vinia Mojica, are two heartfelt, mellow, J. Dilla (aka Jay Dee)-produced tracks that explore the intersections between the personal and the political and the ways that our decisions affect everyone in a heartfelt, serious way.
Kweli’s approaching to rhyming on “Where Do We Go” is especially subtle and delicate. Quality, in general, reveals that Kweli, like the best jazz horn player, knows how to use his instrument in different ways depending on the tone of the music. His rhyming style is more diverse on this album than ever before, and that makes sense for an album that itself is filled with diversity. Quality has songs that rock, smooth songs, songs that make you think, songs that will make you dance. It contains nearly every feeling that music can evoke in a person.