Kwelity Is Back

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By Felicia Pride

“You see me out / Know that my crew is flawless / So called gangsters need more security than the Rawkus office.”

When you arrive at the Rawkus office, Kweli’s words echo in your mind as two thick-assed dudes man the door to the home of some of hip-hop’s brightest and most understated artists. Like the flows, security is tight, no perpetrators allowed. Once on the key-controlled elevator, you realize this place is serious. Walking down the hallway, the office décor (if that is what you want to call it) mirrors its artists’ talent—raw without any unnecessary frill, what you see is what you get. And what you get with Talib Kweli is straight hip-hop, without the elaborate externalities. In these two years since Reflection Eternal (Train of Thought), he’s wised up and grown, but the flow’s still sick and lyrics still quick. He maintains on a rainy day in the Rawkus office, “I can’t make empty music.” Yeah, he’s still “Kweli”.

Talib Kweli Greene’s hip-hop roots weren’t so different than other emcees from Brooklyn. “Growing up in New York, hip-hop was around all the time, you couldn’t avoid it.” Freestyle battles in the park, carrying a tattered notebook filled with rhymes, making childhood connections all in the name of hip-hop, led him to the depths of the underground and eventually, Rawkus records. Double-teaming in the hip-hop arena with Mos Def, as the entity Black Star, introduced the world and scrambling marketing executives to cocky-flowed rappers with more words in their vocabulary than ice, bitch, and rims. Two years later, Kweli’s collaboration with Hi-Tek on Reflection Eternal, became a classic amongst lyrical heads, while making him a poster boy for the positive/conscious rapper brand. Kweli has learned such labels “limit the scope of what you can do as an artist and who you could reach. It has nothing to do with what you are doing or what the fans want. It has to do with the industry and the media needing to put it in a box so they could sell it.” But for those that still don’t know where he’s coming from, he clears it up on the new album, “I heard ‘em say I was a conscious rapper / But I’m a monster when I have to smack the shit out of a nonsense actor / Using my hands solo / I don’t need Chewy / Over your head like yarmulkes to kufis.”

Quality, set to drop November 19th, is pegged as a more lyrically expansive and musically diverse album. The album, he explains, “is less of a focus on ‘Hi, I’m Kweli, look at how dope I am. I can rhyme, let’s battle.’ And more about my growth as a human being and as a man.” As a realist, Kweli admits, “I am starting to realize more and more every day that people really don’t listen to lyrics. And it is tough for me being a lyricist, since that is what I am good at. So I have to find other ways to get people to listen to my lyrics. I have to be very careful with which beats I pick and which hooks I use.”

His effort to deal with the attention-deficit in hip-hop is illustrated by the choice of the first single, “Waitin’ for the DJ”. “It seemed at the time to be the obvious choice for the first single because of the way it felt. It’s an upbeat record, it’s different and it’s fun.” The hook-intensive groove with soul crooner Bilal, has an equally colorful video that should grab the attention of the visually dependent.

Don’t get it twisted, Kweli is not turning his back on those who appreciate the complexity of his rhyming. “Airplay is a goal but it’s not the end all be all. The larger goal is reaching people. The radio could never play my shit, but I’ll still be proud of the album I make. I’m very blessed that I have developed a fan base that’s not necessary concerned with all that.”

He still possesses the gift of hit-you-over-your-head lyrics that are applied to subjects ranging from politics, relationships, to hip-hop, community and plain-old skeptic silencing. Kweli declares that the scope of his subject matter is plainly a matter of “trying to represent the balance where I see no balance.”

“Good to You”, is a signature kwelity track, a lyrical battleground that many emcees aren’t equipped for. The proposed second single, “Get By” is a keen observation of the cause and effects of a society finding it hard to maintain within a complex socioeconomic framework. “The Proud” takes it a step further with frustrated political discussion. In it Kweli rages, “They bet on that / Parents fought and got wet for that / Hosed down / Bit by dogs / And got blacks in the House to rep for that / Its all good / Except for that / We still poor / Money, power and respect is what we kill for.”

No one can deny the Gang Starr chemistry between Hi-Tek and Kweli on Reflection Eternal, but with growth comes change as well as the need to continuously evolve musically. Creative beatsmiths, Kanye West, the Soulquarians, Jay Dee, Ayatollah and DJ Quik, give Quality more than enough opportunity to experience triad evolution. Quality, says Kweli, “is more reflective of my musical taste and what I like to listen to whether it be rock or soul or reggae.”

Another calculated decision was engineering highly desired collaborations (similar to those on Reflection Eternal), including ones with lyrical crime partner Mos Def, Res, Common, Black Thought and Pharoahe Monch.

After five years in the industry, Kweli’s focus is on stabilizing the position that he has spit tons of bars for. “I have sort of created my own space that people have to respect and this album is about cementing that space. ” His determination is as fresh as it was as a youngster flowing in the park, “Whatever I was into I wanted to be the best at. And if I couldn’t be the best at it, I didn’t want to fuck with it.” Yeah he’s still “Kweli”.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/kweli-talib-021106/