Music

Talib Kweli: The Beautiful Struggle

Terry Sawyer

Talib Kweli is clearly struggling between the underground's 'values-based' approach and the mainstream's love of the crook and the hook, trying to find a third way that negates the either/or tug-of-war between 'consciousness raising' and big pimpin'.


Talib Kweli

The Beautiful Struggle

Label: Rawkus
US Release Date: 2004-09-28
UK Release Date: 2004-09-27
Amazon
iTunes

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.

Music


Books


Film


Recent
Books

In 'Wandering Dixie', Discovering the Jewish South Is Part of Discovering Self

Sue Eisenfeld's Wandering Dixie is not only a collection of dispatches from the lost Jewish South but also a journey of self-discovery.

Music

Bill Withers and the Curse of the Black Genius

"Lean on Me" singer-songwriter Bill Withers was the voice of morality in an industry without honor. It's amazing he lasted this long.

Film

Jeff Baena Explores the Intensity of Mental Illness in His Mystery, 'Horse Girl'

Co-writer and star Alison Brie's unreliable narrator in Jeff Baena's Horse Girl makes for a compelling story about spiraling into mental illness.

Music

Pokey LaFarge Hits 'Rock Bottom' on His Way Up

Americana's Pokey LaFarge performs music in front of an audience as a way of conquering his personal demons on Rock Bottom.

Music

Joni Mitchell's 'Shine' Is More Timely and Apt Than Ever

Joni Mitchell's 2007 eco-nightmare opus, Shine is more timely and apt than ever, and it's out on vinyl for the first time.

Music

'Live at Carnegie Hall' Captures Bill Withers at His Grittiest and Most Introspective

Bill Withers' Live at Carnegie Hall manages to feel both exceptionally funky and like a new level of grown-up pop music for its time.

Music

Dual Identities and the Iranian Diaspora: Sepehr Debuts 'Shaytoon'

Electronic producer Sepehr discusses his debut album releasing Friday, sparing no detail on life in the Iranian diaspora, the experiences of being raised by ABBA-loving Persian rug traders, and the illegal music stores that still litter modern Iran.

Television

From the Enterprise to the Discovery: The Decline and Fall of Utopian Technology and the Liberal Dream

The technology and liberalism of recent series such as Star Trek: Discovery, Star Trek: Picard, and the latest Doctor Who series have more in common with Harry Potter's childish wand-waving than Gene Roddenberry's original techno-utopian dream.

Music

The 50 Best Post-Punk Albums Ever: Part 2, The B-52's to Magazine

This week we are celebrating the best post-punk albums of all-time and today we have part two with the Cure, Mission of Burma, the B-52's and more.

Music

Emily Keener's "Boats" Examines Our Most Treasured Relationships (premiere)

Folk artist Emily Keener's "Boats" offers a warm look back on the road traveled so far—a heartening reflection for our troubled times.

Music

Paul Weller - "Earth Beat" (Singles Going Steady)

Paul Weller's singular modes as a soul man, guitar hero, and techno devotee converge into a blissful jam about hope for the earth on "Earth Beat".

Games

On Point and Click Adventure Games with Creator Joel Staaf Hästö

Point and click adventure games, says Kathy Rain and Whispers of a Machine creator Joel Staaf Hästö, hit a "sweet spot" between puzzles that exercise logical thinking and stories that stimulate emotions.

Music

The 50 Best Post-Punk Albums Ever: Part 1, Gang of Four to the Birthday Party

If we must #quarantine, at least give us some post-punk. This week we are revisiting the best post-punk albums of all-time and we kick things off with Gang of Four, Public Image Ltd., Throbbing Gristle, and more.

Music

Alison Chesley Toils in Human and Musical Connectivity on Helen Money's 'Atomic'

Chicago-based cellist, Alison Chesley (a.k.a. Helen Money) creates an utterly riveting listen from beginning to end on Atomic.

Music

That Kid's 'Crush' Is a Glittering Crossroads for E-Boy Music

That Kid's Crush stands out for its immediacy as a collection of light-hearted party music, but the project struggles with facelessness.

Books

Percival Everett's ​​​'Telephone​​​' Offers a Timely Lesson

Telephone provides a case study of a family dynamic shaken by illness, what can be controlled, and what must be accepted.

Reviews

Dream Pop's Ellis Wants to be 'Born Again'

Ellis' unhappiness serves as armor to protect her from despair on Born Again. It's better to be dejected than psychotic.

Music

Counterbalance No. 10: 'Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols'

The Spirit of ’77 abounds as Sex Pistols round out the Top Ten on the Big List. Counterbalance take a cheap holiday in other people’s misery. Right. Now.

Film

'Thor: Ragnarok' Destroys and Discards the Thor Mythos

Taika Waititi's Thor: Ragnarok takes a refreshingly iconoclastic approach to Thor, throwing out the old, bringing in the new, and packaging the story in a colourful, gorgeously trashy aesthetic that perfectly captures the spirit of the comics.

Music

Alps 2 and Harry No Release Eclectic Single "Madness at Toni's Chip Shop in Wishaw" (premiere)

Alps 2 and Harry NoSong's "Madness at Toni's Chip Shop in Wishaw" is a dizzying mix of mangled 2-step rhythms and woozy tranquil electronics.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews
Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.