[18 September 2000]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Talib Kweli belongs to an ever-growing legion of young hip-hoppers who celebrate the roots of the music while melding it with neo-soul rhythms and a perspective that is both eternally optimistic and filled with social criticism. Kweli and Hi-Tek, a mighty DJ with an understated but forceful style, are Reflection Eternal, and they’ve finally released their debut CD.
Kweli’s already made a name for himself in the hip-hop world, through not only a multitude of guest appearances and tracks on the hottest compilation albums (Soundbombing, Lyricist Lounge, etc.) but, more importantly, through his partnership with Mos Def. As Black Star, they produced Mos Def and Talib Kweli Are Black Star, an instant classic. Mos Def tends to get the most attention, in part because of his outstanding solo debut Black on Both Sides, but also because his rhyming style has a great deal of flair. But Kweli’s just as talented, and while his CD might not be as musically audacious as Mos Def’s, it’s just as good.
Kweli and Hi-Tek’s album is packed with both reflection and the eternal sounds of raw hip-hop. Here Kweli’s hooked up nicely with a handful of guest stars, including both expected friends (Mos Def, De La Soul, Vinia Mojica) and respected hip-hop notables (Kool G. Rap, Rah Digga, Xzibit). “This Means You,” featuring Mos Def, reminds listeners of the magic the two achieve every time they appear together, while “1, 2, 3, 4” is a superb showcase of the rhyming talents of Kweli, Rah Digga and Xzibit.
The posse cuts hit hard, yet Kweli shines just as much when he’s on his own. He’s one of the most diverse MCs around, in terms of rhyming style. He’s a hyper-articulate MC with a revolutionary’s mind and a sensitive poet’s heart, but he’s also a world-class battle MC, able to rip other MCs’ rhymes apart in a quick second. He has the rare habit of switching styles mid-song without you even noticing; check out “Eternalists,” where he goes from a soulful sing-song flow to a hardcore attack and back again. He utilizes his diversity of style for great impact throughout, going from direct and heavy to gentle and subtle, stopping everywhere in between.
Lyrically, he also treads more ground than just about anyone else. He’ll be making blink-and-you’ll-miss-them references to hip-hop classics one minute (notice, for example, the way he quietly reworks the chorus to Audio Two’s “Top Billin” on “Too Late”), and then contemplating parent-child relationships or examining the prison system the next. He manages to cover plenty of weighty topics without ever taking a rest from projecting the fun and celebratory energy of hip-hop.
This CD, self-titled though several songs refer to it as Train of Thought, crosses more ground than most recent albums of any genre. If all’s fair, Kweli and Hi-Tek’s debut should continue to build their reputation. Like Mos Def, the Roots, Common and others, Kweli and Hi-Tek aren’t in the game just to build up their names as hip-hop legends. Yet in quietly making such a gem of an album, they’ve taken a big leap toward achieving exactly that.