“Not Because I’m Conscious”: An Interview with Talib Kweli

Talib Kweli talks with PopMatters, his forthcoming album, Ear Drum, in mind.

Talib Kweli
Ear Drum
Warner Bros.

The Native Tongues Posse left an indelible stain on the hip-hop community in the late ’80s and early ’90s, marking the transition from a consistently ignored culture to one of mainstream prominence in a relatively brief amount of time. The crew, mainly consisting of the legendary Jungle Brothers, De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest, had pioneered a style that would echo in the years that followed, setting a precedent for conscious rappers to infuse their lyrics with socially concerned themes and their DJs to dig the crates for obscure and velvety jazz loops. But as the crew dissipated and the groups floated away from one another, a torch was passed from the effervescent past to what stands as its modern-day equivalent. The late ’90s became the starting point for this next generation, featuring the voices of luminaries like Common and Pharoahe Monch, and with each album release, the socio-conscious hip-hop movement shifted from a backpacker’s delight to a mainstream fury with recognition from the college masses.

Alongside the aforementioned emcees is Talib Kweli who, with his marvelously crafted poetic delivery, has developed one of the strongest followings among his brethren. Since the 1998 release of his insta-classic collaboration record Black Star with Mos Def, Kweli has released four albums — two of which were separate full-lengths with producers Madlib and Hi-Tek — that propagate the values set forth by the Native Tongues movement. He is armed with social omniscience and a thick knowledge of African-American culture, and though his lyrical agenda is based on raising awareness of problems like poverty and poor self-image, he stays mainly focused on keeping his music pragmatic. “I think it’s a realistic view,” he says of his perspective on certain issues during a phone interview. “I think that balance is positive and negative, so as much as I talk about negative subject matters, I talk about positive subject matters as well.”

Kweli parcels out his polar attitudes towards social concerns on the forthcoming Ear Drum, his third and possibly most diverse solo album to date. Each track addresses a different issue, whether it involves aggressively lambasting gimmicky emcees on the Jean Grae-assisted “Say Something” or softly painting a verbal picture of childhood malnutrition on “Eat to Live”, produced by Madlib. “I don’t go into any album with pressing issues,” he disaffectedly states. “I just try to write songs.” Regardless, the record is overflowing with content, as Kweli floats from subject to subject without a break in his demeanor or composure. Ear Drum is packed with ladles of brilliant lyrical moments, and with one of the best sonic landscapes that money can buy, Kweli is shaping himself to be a polished veteran who becomes increasingly reliable with each release.

The dependability is confirmed as the record plays. “More Or Less”, a fluid banger with a beat from longtime partner Hi-Tek, is a conceptual single concerned with promoting what Kweli believes would help to ameliorate the ills of society. On the track, Kweli raps, “More schools, less prisons / More freestyles, less written / More serious shit, and less kiddin’ / More history, less mystery / More Beyonce, less Britney”. But as quick as Kweli is to criticize the masses’ bad choices, he immediately shifts to a romantic mode on “Hot Thing”. Over a supple will.i.am beat, Kweli personifies a woman as a film, spitting “Your body like a flick / It got surprising twists / I write the script / The main character, your thighs and hips / Award for best-supporting role go to your eyes and lips / The way you move the body, got ’em stiff like a hieroglyph”.

Equally as affecting is “Electrify”, sporting a lush soul sample courtesy of Pete Rock. Kweli speaks as if taking questions from fans, acknowledging concerns and responding to their criticisms. He even dips into religion on “Give ‘Em Hell”, on which he expresses his inability to question supposed facts at a young age. He raps, “Taught that if you don’t know Jesus, then you lead a hollow life / Never questioned the fact that Jesus was Jewish and not a Christian / Or that Christianity was law according to politicians”, likening the current state of society to hell on the chorus. “I have more experience and resources under my belt, and my thoughts have changed because of it, and that’s it,” he says in regards to his methodically diverse topics. “You know? A lot has changed. Things are fluid in this world, and if you don’t remain fluid, you get lost in the sauce.”

In putting this credo into practice, Kweli has added to the record’s varied essence by enlisting some unexpected guest stars to appear on the tracks. “Soon the New Day” is perhaps the most bizarre, with Norah Jones singing the hook over a beat by the notoriously esoteric Madlib. Despite her jazz-inflected musings, Jones sounds syrupy and comfortable in a hip-hop context. “What is Norah Jones’ style?” Kweli asks. “Is it just the albums that we’ve heard? She has a rock group where she plays guitar in, downtown in New York, so do we really know her style?” A less drastic genre fusion marks the breezy “Country Cousins” featuring UGK, and despite their innately different lyrical techniques, the collective proves that good music transcends all cultural boundaries. “We certainly come from different places in the world and our subject matter is different,” he says of UGK. “It’s not about butting heads. I’m not in a group with Bun B. We just make what we want to make.”

While Ear Drum is certainly a milestone in Kweli’s rap vocation, it also plays an important role in his career as CEO of his label Blacksmith Records. The album is his first attempt to put out a solo effort on his own, and although earlier this year he released the Madlib collaboration Liberation on the imprint, Ear Drum is his way of proving his skills as a businessman in developing and promoting only himself. “It’s a challenge,” he says of running Blacksmith, having previously released most records on Rawkus.

“But anything worth having is going to be tough. I was already running a record company, so I just needed to do it in name. I’d be signed to a record company and doing their job for them.” Kweli will also have an opportunity flex his corporate muscle with the release of more “dope, fly shit” from artists signed to his imprint. Strong Arm Steady’s Arms and Hammers is slated for this year, in addition to albums from the gruff Jean Grae, whose collaboration with 9th Wonder titled Jeanius will finally see the light of day, although no dates are confirmed for her discs.

As the day approaches for Ear Drum to hit the shelves after a slew of delays, Kweli is making his way around the country as a top-billed artist on this summer’s Rock the Bells tour. Kweli has been sharing the stage with Mos Def and performing as Black Star, and although he claims that they will record again, there are no scheduled plans to do so. But in keeping the Native Tongue movement alive in caring for the community, Kweli plans on going to New Orleans in the forthcoming weeks to provide some hurricane relief aid.

His role as a rapper may be inspiring to a generation of apathy-ridden listeners, but in the end, he claims that everyone has to just play their part. “I think in order for revolution to happen, everyone needs to do [his or her] job,” he says. “My job is to be a rapper and to be the best damn rapper I can be. If I focus on being an activist and my job is to be a rapper, I’m not going to be as good of a rapper. I need to focus on hip-hop and focus on making the music, so that when the activists come to me and they need my voice to create a platform, then I’ve got enough people listening to me. Not because I’m conscious, but because I’m dope.”