On his way to commercial breakthrough, has Talib Kweli sacrificed his social conscience? Or has he simply grounded it in the more fundamental matters of family and the love of the flow?
I speak at schools a lot cause they say I'm intelligent / No, it's cause I'm dope, if I was wack I'd be irrelevant.
-- Talib Kweli, "The Beautiful Struggle"
To suggest that some of us romanticize our favorite conscious rappers -- I've regularly referred to them as "celebrity Gramscians" -- is an understatement. Indeed, in our efforts to claim a little space in opposition to that heinous thing known as mainstream hip-hop, we've invested in these highbrow expectations about some of these cats (and femme felines) as if they didn't get started in the first place just wanting to "roc the mic". So we look askance when the Roots back Jay-Z or totally ignore the fact that the video for Trick Daddy's "I'm a Thug" might be the most sophisticated popular analysis of black intra-racial class antagonisms since Charles Fuller's Pulitzer winning drama A Soldier's Story. But as Talib Kweli explains on the title track of his new release The Beautiful Struggle, "They call me the political rapper / Even after I tell them I don't fuck with politics... I'm on some KRS, Ice Cube, Chris Wallace shit / Main Source, De La Soul, bumpin' '2Pacalypse Now'" -- a not so subtle reminder that no matter what the content is, it's always about the "love of the flow". While The Beautiful Struggle celebrates the joy and pain of the everyday, it might also describe the travails of a righteous rapper who just wants to get his flow on.
As Talib Kweli's "Get By" began to blare regularly on urban radio in the spring of 2003 -- easily programmed between Mr. Kelly's "Ignition (remix)" and Beyonce's "Crazy in Love" -- there was a real sense that he had made the leap from the conscious-rapper ghetto into the land of bankable commercial artist. Before that point, Kweli resisted the desire to be labeled, riffing on Me'Shell Ndegéocello's "Hot Night" -- "I feed my babies with music / I tell the truth, now I'm a target in their market. Ain't that a sommabitch." But given the critical and commercial success of 2002's Quality, the stakes were decidedly different this time around. As Kweli reflects on The Beautiful Struggle's lead single "I Try" (produced by Kanye, blessed by Lady Blige), "The label want a song about a bubbly life / I have trouble tryin' to write some shit / To bang in the club through the night / When people suffer tonight." Some critics have reductively described the single as "Get By, Part II" (more a comment on the Kanye's overexposure I think -- the cat is all over the place and his production suffers because of it). For example Village Voice reviewer Irin Carmon described "I Try" as a "poor choice for a flagship track". Regardless, "I Try", like its predecessor, has cats getting spiritual and cerebral (ebullient might be a good description) all up in the club and while rolling down the boulevard in the Escalade.
That Kweli is upbeat about The Beautiful Struggle, suggests that at least he believes that he is making the kind of music he should make, no matter what critics think. Talking by phone from his Brooklyn home base, Kweli notes that the "reception has been different. I'm not getting the critical acclaim that I'm used to, but more than ever regular people on the street are coming up to me, telling me that they like this song or they like that song, and that never happened before." For an artist whose work is so much about connecting with the people, this is a welcome turn: "Before I had all this critical acclaim, but no one knew what the fuck I was talking about. Now real people are reaching out to me and the music critics don't get it." When asked about the difference between The Beautiful Struggle and his previous work, Kweli's response is surprisingly simple: "This album I tired to let the music decide what I was gonna write, instead of vice versa."
While Kweli's longtime partner Hi-Tek is in the mix, The Beautiful Struggle also features beats from certified hit-makers such as Just Blaze ("Never Been in Love"), the Neptunes ("Broken Glass") and, of course, flavor of the moment Kanye West. If there's something to be learned by Kweli's production choices, it's that today's conscious rapper need not be boxed in like, say, KRS-One, who for much of his career was saddled with production that was clearly outclassed by his lyrics (save when he handed over the production reins to Primo). According to Kweli, "Some [music critics] are not prepared for some of the music I'm coming with. I think they underestimate my intentions. They think I'm doing certain things to appeal to the mainstream. I think they're just now realizing what kind of artist I was."
What we've always known about Talib Kweli the artist, is that he is thoughtful, well-read, cerebral and committed to the best traditions of social justice. Of course, one of the great influences on Talib Kweli the person, is his mother, professor Brenda Greene, who directs the Center for Black Literature at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn. "She made sure I understood the power of language," Kweli explains. "Made sure I understood that I am nothing, if I don't attribute what I've gotten to the community that I've come out of."
Another of Kweli's influences has been the late jazz vocalist Nina Simone, as witnessed by Kweli and Hi-Tek's revision of Simone's "Four Women" (from Reflection Eternal), their name-drop of Ms. Simone on "The Blast" and of course the sanctified moaning that opens "Get By" (taken from Simone's "Sinnerman"). And Blackstar's longtime musical mentor, the late Weldon Irvine, was Simone's musical director for a time. "Nina Simone was very inspirational as a person to me," Kweli admits, seeing hip-hop as fulfilling the political and cultural role that Simone couldn't after the mainstream reaction to her groundbreaking political songs of the 1960s forced her to leave the United States. "Nina sort of removed herself from the situation. She left America and went to Paris. We're sort of the equivalent of Nina would do, if she chose to stay here." Simone who had a significant following in the late 1950s and early 1960s fell out of favor among mainstream audiences when she began to lend her talents to the civil rights struggle and recorded songs like "Mississippi Goddam", "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free", and "Why? (The King of Love is Dead)", her tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr.
For an artist who so often distances himself from the "political rapper" label, he is quite clear about the political potential of hip-hop. Speaking to William Jelani Cobb earlier this year, Kweli suggested a link between hip-hop and the civil rights movement, claiming "there are a thousand hip-hop songs that share those themes they just aren't listening". When asked to elaborate, Kweli tells PopMatters, "Sometimes the media perception is that there's only one type of hip-hop made. Journalists and artists have to be careful when we talk about hip-hop, because there are two different worlds. There's a world that the media portrays as hip-hop and then there's what hip-hop actually is... It goes across the spectrum, when you talk about hip-hop in general. But when you talk about hip-hop in the mainstream, there's only one type of thing." Kweli's comments, in part, explain his collaboration with Jay Z and Busta Rhymes on last year's remix of "Get By" or his decision to feature radio friendly R&B acts like Blige, Faith Evans and Anthony Hamilton on some of the tracks.
According to Kweli, the title for The Beautiful Struggle came from his Blackstar partner: "Mos Def used to say all the time, 'Life is beautiful, life is a struggle, life is a beautiful struggle.' As I was putting the list of songs together, the songs all sounded like a beautiful struggle to me." In classic form, Kweli takes that theme and provides a sensitive view into the lives of black woman, as he did on tracks like "For Women" or Blackstar's "Brown Skin Lady". The Beautiful Struggle's "Black Girl Pain", featuring Jean Grae, is the album's most striking track. On the track he smiles out loud about his relationship with his young daughter: "she four reading Cornrows by Camille Yarbrough / I keep her head braided, bought her a black Barbie / I keep her mind, she ain't no black zombie." "I know I can't write from a first-hand perspective, so I wrote to my daughter or about my daughter," Kweli says of the song. "My son and daughter, they are my reward and my inspiration at the same time."
There's a line that gets repeated throughout the title track: "you'll try to change the world/so please excuse me while I laugh." The lyric in many ways embodies Talib Kweli's apprehensions about be viewed as a political rapper. For Kweli, it's not about changing the world, but about changing life up on the block or changing his daughter into her pajamas after a busy day playing and reading with her father-and that is a beautiful struggle indeed.