Born in Brooklyn, Talib Kweli (whose name is a mixture of Arabic and Swahili meaning “student of truth”) has spent the last decade cementing his status as one of the most prolific figures in hip-hop. Cultivating a progressive, thoughtful approach to rap, he’s used lyrical insight to cultivate knowledge in listeners around the world. While he’s not necessarily a household name, he probably should be: Kweli first tasted success in 1998 when he teamed with fellow rapper Mos Def to form seminal progressive-rap group Blackstar. After the success of that group’s self-titled debut, Kweli ventured on to form another side project, Reflection Eternal, with Cincinnati-born producer Hi-Tek before releasing his critically acclaimed solo debut, Quality, in 2002. His second solo album, The Beautiful Struggle, followed in 2004 and included the song “I Try”—an anthem which brought Kweli moderate success (if not enough to earn him mainstream marketability). In 2005, Kweli left Rawkus Records to start his own label, Blacksmith Records, with longtime manager Corey Smyth.
Although Kweli has produced a series of mixtapes and compilations under the Blacksmith moniker, he has yet to release a full-length solo album. Of course, that’s set to change this July when he drops the highly anticipated Eardum: “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,” says Kweli on his website. “I wanted to focus on something that makes you move.” With zealous fans packed tighter than a tuna can on Highline Ballroom’s spacious floor, Kweli made pre-emptive good on his promise, inspiring the crowd to move by example. Indeed, Highline Ballroom became the house of the Blacksmith as Kweli flooded the mob of enthusiastic fans with big beats and tight flow—a reward, as it were, for the fact that many of them had waited in a line big enough to make even the most hardcore Disney World denizens balk.
18 May 2007: Highline Ballroom New York, NY
With DJ Chaps on the wheels of steel and two sultry back-up singers at each corner of the stage, Kweli performed a set spanning his illustrious career. Visuals of iconic black figures such as Run-D.M.C., Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X flashed on the screen behind DJ Chaps, adding emotional weight as Kweli sent words of wisdom reverberating through the Highline Ballroom. His dance rhythms appeared to correlate with the emotional intensity of the lyrics, as if the words were controlling him rather than the other way around. On many occasions, DJ Chaps broke out a beat that forced Kweli to adjust a word’s inflection—a move which in turn altered the groove of the rapper’s movement. Of course, the subconscious communication between Kweli and Chaps was so fluid that these switch-ups never interrupted the show’s energetic vibe.
Besides flawless renditions of classics like “The Blast” from Train of Thought, “Respiration” (minus Common) from Blackstar, and Quality’s “Get By,” Kweli incorporated freestyle songs backed by beats ranging from the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” to Mims’s top-selling single, “This Is Why I’m Hot.” During the latter freestyle, Kweli took on Don Imus and criticized people who call women derogatory names. Kweli finished the show with a few tracks from Eardrum, including the album’s first single, “Listen!!!”
Throughout Kweli’s 90-minute show for b-boys and b-girls of all ages, the lyrics kept flowing but never seemed stale. By stale, I mean boring or fruitless—the kind of rhymes which often crowd the pop charts for a few minutes, only to disappear before the beats have even finished reverberating. Don’t misunderstand me; hip-hop is a multi-faceted cultural revolution that embraces many forms of spoken-word expressionism, and not everyone can dance to music that is meant to spark thoughts about our worldly existence. But, the fact that people like Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones (not to mention iconic old-school rappers) regularly say that hip-hop leaves them cold is evidence that the genre’s essence is often overshadowed by rappers who lack the education or desire to write lyrics that positively impact today’s youth. As Kweli himself says: “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.” And, by living up to his word in performances like this one, Kweli gives hope to hip-hop.