Talib Kweli has long been a central figure on the margins of hip-hop, so much so that his last two stabs at major label stardom could legitimately be seen as cushier launch pads for his already established acclaim. Kweli is an underground cat that gets many hat tips from the Billboard ballers, sometimes in the form of guest mic spots and in the general opinion that Reflection Eternal, with Hi-Tek, was as close as anyone has ever come in melding the underground’s “values-based” approach with the mainstream’s love of the crook and the hook.
Sadly, it seems as if this is one of those dichotomies of unknown origin, like a modern-day Hatfield trying to figure out the original McCoy crime. It’s an aesthetic conflict that, because of hip-hop’s tradition of rivalry, creates a situation of mutual disdain, a Mexican stand-off of creative loss. Kweli is clearly struggling between those two choices, trying to find a third way that negates the either/or tug-of-war between “consciousness-raising” and big pimpin’. The Beautiful Struggle both succeeds and concedes on that score, alternating a catalogue of the world’s woes with auto-fellating braggadocio. That teeter-tottering hybrid has many soaring moments and just as many ill-fated collisions.
For the sake of accentuating the positive, let’s deal with the rubbish and get on with it. “Broken Glass” sounds like a cloying attempt to have a “club thumper”, but it’s full of groping errata that blunts its pop reach. For one, its competing backdrop layers have the net effect of suffocating Kweli’s flow and simultaneously congealing only in amplified cacophony. Dog barks, a woman shouting and a tinkling cow bell are just a few of the elements that renders the song a pile of diversions. What’s worse, the song’s overstuffed booty jam structure makes the tragic young naïf in the city narrative sound comically couched. Listening to a tale of drugs, prostitution and woe trapped in “Whomp! There It Is” makes Kweli sound like your stepdad trying to use slang to get you to take out the garbage.
Borrowing a soiling page from P.Diddy, which is a bit like mugging thieves who’ve just robbed a pawn shop trafficking in hot merchandise, Kweli lifts the melody of “Everything Little Thing She Does Is Magic”, waters it down to a few tinkling Liberace piano wisps, and then to make “Around My Way” cursed among songs adds one of those soggy, warbling R&B choruses that, for mainstream hip-hop, are a deadening indicator that “seriousness” is afoot. If crossover is the target of this effort, then surely his handlers should update the roster of kingmakers, roping in Timbaland or bringing back the Neptunes for another round of misfires that would at least have the benefit of contemporariness.
There’s a whole sunken subset of this record that battles with mismatching: beats that clomp over Kweli’s cadence and songs so patently unoriginal that they sound crafted in a record label boardroom. Few people other than Hi-Tek seem to know how to frame Kweli’s lyrics, too often saddling him with ill-fitting overkill or sonic bouquets of cliché. With a lesser artist, these missteps would completely devour the rest of the record, but when Kweli hits it, his spiritual and artistic incandescence trumps all.
Part of that forgiving erasure is that fact that when his style straddling shines, it’s truly triumphal. “I Try” is both sentient and full of beat momentum, a Latin piano riff, a bass line that tumbles fast and fuzzy, and splices of crowd roar that push the track onward and upward like the crowd surfer at a festival show. It also does just enough and not too much, cleanly allowing both Mary J. Blige and Kweli space to testify without drowning in overproduction. Mary J. Blige acts as Kweli’s enthusiastic parishioner echoing his paean to the scuffs and scrapes of existence with her skyward eruptions.
The chorus: “life is a beautiful struggle/people search through the rubble for a suitable hustle” gorgeously snags his hopefulness, humility and burgeoning Buddha nature. “I Try” also openly acknowledges his artistic direction suffers under pressure from the suits who want him to shuck the pain of the world business and just thug up in the club with some Henny. Kweli proves here that the groove and the soul can coexist in rowdy comity.
Opener, “Going Hard” takes on globalization and our complicity in the impoverishment of others in muscled bursts that don’t sag or sink under the enormity of what he’s addressing. Kweli has a graceful forcefulness to his sense of right that doesn’t have the slightest hint of a finger wag or know-it-all glow. It doesn’t hurt that it’s a song that cavernously engulfing, with trumpets that announce the record with a processional hugeness, along with a bassline that tumbles like a slinky on the stairs, guitar licks that angrily circle the song’s depths, and several other instrumental elements that vein out with Kweli at that heart. It’s this adventurousness anchored and orchestrated by Kweli’s tone that could have unrolled a record that from start to finish, would have been a controlled flash of hard scrabble wisdom without all the pop tart potholes.
Though I normally scoff at the guitar hip-hop hybrids for being less organic evolutions than market share grabs, it’s hard not to find the Res collaboration, “We Got the Beat” wildly and instantly ear friendly, particularly for his playful pause in the middle of the song to do his own take on “Double Dutch Bus”. There’s a magic in their flawless ease together, partly due to the fact that both of them have voices that are silkily scratched. The slinking twine of their dovetailing has created a string of wonderful collaborations from “Too Late” off Train of Thought to” Where Do We Go”, the song that sticks out like a flower blooming in adversity on Quality.
I guess it’s the sound of “trying” that ultimately leaves me ambivalent but not hostile to this record. At least half of the songs don’t stoop for your attention, and it’s plenty improved from Quality a bloated shot in the dark with few saving graces. The Beautiful Struggle is polluted from the outside in, by incorporating a battle that needn’t be fought: Kweli’s civil war for his own career. He’s already made plenty of songs that deserve their day on the radio, even if they don’t seamlessly fit the boxy, soulless molds of people like Ja Rule, Chingy and Nelly. I could be wrong, as is often the case, but I’d simply prefer a record less divided against itself. Besides, if you build it right, they will come.