There was one other dilemma — how to make a living from the kind of writing I wanted to do…I wanted to write seriously and as well as I knew how about the Negro people, and make that kind of writing earn a living for me.
— Langston Hughes, I Wonder as I Wander
It is true that [Langston] Hughes was never anxious to be accepted by mainstream tradition. That is not to say that he was not sensitive to the criticism of his works but that early in his writing career he realized that once a writer begins making concessions, even slight ones, to anyone’s conditions and demands he loses his independence and integrity.
— Edward J. Mullen, Critical Essays on Langston Hughes
When you are honest with your craft, it comes out fly-er than anything you try to write for radio.
— Talib Kweli, Vibe Magazine, August 2004.
Finally, (finally!), after several delays and much anticipation, Talib Kweli’s latest release, Ear Drum, hits the market. It is now “The Year of the Blacksmith”, as he says in “Listen!!!”, referencing his self-created label. On “Say Somethin'”, he explains that the Year of the Blacksmith “is not defined by any calendar”, and so we’re left to speculate that perhaps it’s a state of mind.
It should be noted that Kweli didn’t leave us empty handed while we were waiting. He opened 2007 with Liberation, a collaboration with acclaimed producer Madlib. Short, sweet, and back-to-basics, Liberation offered a taste of what we’ve always loved to hear from Kweli — rhymes by the mouthful, delivered at his signature rapid-fire pace. We love to hear him rhyme over Hi-Tek’s beats, but we all know Madlib is no slouch in the production department.
Liberation is an enjoyable piece of work — I’d probably give it a rating of 6 out of 10 — with heavy rotation joints like: “Over the Counter”, working a scattershot beat straight out of LL Cool J’s “Kanday”; “Funny Money”, about the shady side of trying to get paid properly (“My kids can’t eat my love of hip-hop!”); and the family tree-tracing “Happy Home”, featuring Candice Anderson. Besides that, consider what has to happen to get such a project completed — figuring out what songs you want to write, then writing them, then performing and recording them, plus incorporating performances by guests. You might say, “Big deal. Writing and recording music is what he does for a living. Why applaud the guy for it?” I dig that. Still, the decision to allow fans to download Liberation free of charge is very much appreciated. Thank you, Kweli!
Nevertheless, Liberation wasn’t a preview of Ear Drum. Liberation advances a harder, edgier sound while Ear Drum is a moodier, more melodic listen.
Kweli’s output has been, overall, quite strong — you’ve got the Black Star album with Mos Def and Hi-Tek, the Reflection Eternal album with Hi-Tek, two solo albums in Quality and The Beautiful Struggle, Liberation, some decent mixtapes, and plenty of choice guest spots (two of my favorites are “Favorite Mutiny” with the Coup and Black Thought, and “Hot Night” with Me’shell Ndegeocello). Yet, it seems everyone has an opinion about Talib Kweli the man, how he should sound, and how he could (or should) achieve a wider measure of success and popularity. On Ear Drum’s “Stay Around”, he faces these critiques, incorporating them into his rhyme as if he’s taking pointers from an audience:
“Yeah, Kweli, you should rap about this.”
“You should rap about that.”
Anymore suggestions? You, in the back.
Yeah, you. “You should rap on beat.”
“You should rap more street
and never, ever get your mack on, pleeeease.”
“I don’t like your voice.”
“I don’t like your choice of beats, it sounds forced.”
“What was up with ‘Back Up Offa Me’, I ain’t like that.”
“Now you should get with Hi-Tek, he got nice tracks…”
Rather than being mad about it, Kweli’s responds enthusiastically, “Yeah, people, keep it coming.” All the while, he continues with his plan: (1) there ain’t much he can do about his voice, so forget that; (2) there’s probably not as much behind-the-board action from Hi-Tek as there could have been; and (3) he’s still packing his rhymes with as many syllables as he can. About that syllable packing, Kweli’s style makes me think of the scene in Amadeus in which Emperor Joseph II (Jeffrey Jones) critiques the work of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce), saying, “The work is ingenious”, but goes on to add that it has “a few too many notes”. The Emperor quips, “Just cut a few, and it’ll be perfect,” and Mozart is like, “What? Dude, my music has as many notes as I need — no more, no less. And just for that, I’m about to add a few more, son.” Kweli would probably like that scene, because he doesn’t seem to be trimming anything either.
Ear Drum, then, is about the music he’s making for our ears, but it’s also about the feedback Kweli’s been hearing in his. How should the feedback inform or affect his music, if at all?
In “NY Weather Report” he says, “They say your life’s path is not about the destination, it’s about the journey.” To me, Kweli’s artistic journey resembles the artistic conflicts experienced by Harlem Renaissance writers and artists, and specifically the conflicts of Langston Hughes. I pick Hughes because he’s one of the most important writers (if not the most important writer) of the Harlem Renaissance, the anointed “Poet Laureate of Harlem”, and sometimes of “Black America”. Likewise, Talib Kweli is one of the most profound and poetic emcees in rap; he’s our emcee laureate, I suppose.
Kweli’s verses invite the comparisons too. Back on his Quality album, Kweli said in “Rush”, “I’m Langston Hughes, dream deferred, seen and heard in the flesh.” On Ear Drum he maintains the Hughes connection by again referencing the “dream deferred” image in the album opener “Everything Man”: “What becomes of a dream deferred / that never makes it to the world to be seen or heard.” Later, he quotes from another famous Hughes poem (“Mother to Son”) in “The Perfect Beat”, saying, “Watch me take it there / life ain’t no crystal stair.”
As Kweli and other rappers face the rigors of public opinion, and deal with how to appease those opinions while vowing to “stay true”, Hughes and Harlem Renaissance writers dealt with artistic issues of their own, particularly the dilemma of handling patronage. That’s right, money. Accepting money from arts enthusiast Charlotte Osgood Mason, whom he met through writer and first black Rhodes scholar Alain Locke, proved to be a major complication for Langston Hughes. Mason, it seems, believed in cultivating the “primitive” natures of “child races”, like “Indians” and “Africans”, and sought to steer black writers toward getting in touch with their “African” roots (see: Robert E. Washington’s The Ideologies of African American Literature: From the Harlem Renaissance to the Black Nationalist Revolt).
Alain Locke introduced many writers to Mason, who asked the writers and artists she supported to call her “Godmother”. By the most cynical accounts, the patron-artist relationship might have operated like the stereotypical record company set-up. Locke was the talent scout, the A&R guy, who’s like, “Look here, brotha, let me pull yo’ coat to this. You could be big, I tell ya. Bigger than big. Just put your signature right here on this line. And if you could have your characters say stuff like, ‘Naw, Massah, I’se don’t know nothin’ ’bout birthin’ no babies’, that would be helpful.” That “signature” would symbolize an agreement to accept money and tutelage from Mason, the record label in this pessimistic example, and while her “advances” weren’t necessarily recoupable from the artists’ royalty stream, her influence over the finished product was immense. Immense, I tell ya. Like, if she wanted you to cut portions of your novel, you didn’t say, “No, I think it works,” you just said, “What? How did that sh*t get in there?” or “I was just thinking the same thing, Godmother,” and you cut it.
By the most benign accounts, Charlotte Mason was merely a philanthropist and patron saint of the arts. She devoted large sums of money to the careers of black writers (including Hughes, Hurston, Aaron Douglas, Richmond Barthe, and Alain Locke) and insisted that she remain an anonymous benefactress. Advocates of this position would caution us against vilifying her efforts. Even her view of “primitivism” and “child races” could be explained as an attempt to help writers develop their own sense of identity, although even these accounts concede that she was rather adamant that only white people, such as herself, should speak about politics and other serious subjects (see: Faith Berry’s Langston Hughes: Before and Beyond Harlem).
Eventually, Hughes was unable to reconcile his sense of self with Mason’s vision for him, writing in his autobiography, “I did not feel the rhythms of the primitive surging through me, and so I could not live and write as though I did. I was only an American Negro — who had loved the surface of Africa and the rhythms of Africa — but I was not Africa.”
Honestly, I have to admit, if somebody said to you, “Hey, I’ll pay all of your expenses and allow you to live comfortably in order to help you write your heart out,” I can’t promise I’d advise you to turn it down. Not even if your patron insisted on editorial control, and especially if said patron promised to clear your path through the literary world and secure favorable reviews for your work. I know that accepting the offer would almost certainly affect the way you produce your art, but maybe we could find a way to “keep it real” and also take the money. I know you’re thinking, “Isn’t that what all the ‘sell-outs’ say? ‘We’re gonna change the system from the inside’.” Maybe, but I really mean it this time!
No matter how we assess the nature of Mason’s patronage today, with both the benefit and the farsightedness of history, artists typically want creative freedom. That freedom is hampered by everything from the trials of daily life to the opinions of the fans and dreaded critics. That’s where we find Talib Kweli on Ear Drum, acutely aware that his last major effort, The Beautiful Struggle, disappointed a sector of his audience, while keenly aware that “you can’t please everybody”, as he himself says at the beginning of “Everything Man”.
When Hughes decided to assert himself and his own beliefs, he irreparably damaged his relationship with Mason. In Critical Essays on Langston Hughes, Edward Mullan explained Hughes’s artistic independence:
By rejecting the dominant, universalist aesthetic, Hughes was able to portray more effectively the cultural schizophrenia of American life and to articulate the voice of that other America, those who lived “separate but equal” lives in America’s urban centers, and to their slow, painful entrance into the mainstream of American life.
That, I think, has been one of Talib Kweli’s major goals with his music, to speak to (and from the vantage point of) groups that have been marginalized from “the norm”. Ear Drum comes mighty close to reaching that goal, with only a few stumbles along the way. Since everyone looks for different things in Kweli’s work, let’s break it down into sections:
Voice: High pitched and a little nasally, Talib Kweli’s voice is distinctive; some might call it “an acquired taste”. If you’re not feeling Kweli’s vocals, I don’t know what to tell you, other than, “Maybe you should think about getting Pharoahe Monch, UGK, or that Zeph & Azeem joint.” Simple as that.
Personally, I like Kweli’s voice just fine. He has a way of almost singing his lines as he hits his stride in a song. Also, even the haters can acknowledge how effective his voice is in these gems from the album: his twisty Southern crunk flow in “Country Cousins”, in which he actually carries a Nas-like rasp in his vocals; his quiet swagger in the swooning “Soon the New Day” and ultra-mellow “In the Mood” (“I wear the night like a cloak ’cause I move with the stars / navigatin’ through the truly bizarre”); and the slight whine he uses in “Stay Around” to address the perceived flaws in his game, as discussed earlier.
Delivery: Is he still rapping offbeat and cramming syllables into his lines like passengers on the New York subway? Yep, that’s how Talib Kweli gets it done, although this album finds him more “on beat” than you might have expected. If you don’t like his legitimate and mad committed rhythmic polysyllabic pedagogical wit, then Kweli in general probably isn’t the emcee for you.
Is he still poetic? Absolutely. His diction, similes, and wordplays are in high gear on Ear Drum, whether he’s in the mood for romance or in revolutionary mode, “Bangin’ on the system, fightin’ my kinda war / Loud as a whisper, quiet as a lion’s roar” (“Listen!!!”).
A few of my favorite lines from the album are: (1) “Kickin’ n*ggas out the club like Michael Richards” (“Say Somethin'”) — I was wondering when someone was going to get a Michael Richards line into a rap song — and (2) “Notes from the piano [are] fallin’ out the sky / like angels losin’ their wings so they can see how it feels to cry” (“Oh My Stars”). The first one cracks me the hell up and arguably includes the one time when the n-word is the most appropriate choice to make a rhyme work. The second line is superb, aptly showing Kweli’s abilities as a wordsmith with vision.
Guests: I’m all about Kweli’s past collaborations and Ear Drum has its share of really snazzy ones. The highlights are: Musiq Soulchild belting it out on “Oh My Stars”; Jean Grae on “Say Something”, although I thought her rhymes could have been tighter; UGK on “Country Cousins”; KRS-One on “The Perfect Beat”, which is a perfect fit for the two; and Norah Jones on “Soon the New Day”.
That last one surprises people, but I dig the results. Don’t sleep on Norah Jones, y’all. Her singing skills are all that, although…I wouldn’t mind hearing outtakes of her bustin’ a freestyle, just to satisfy my curiosity.
The bad news? Well, I wouldn’t have let Kanye have a verse on “In the Mood” under any circumstances — his verse absolutely ruins the track in an appallingly juvenile and amateurish way. Mr. West, please never say the word “booty” or utter a phrase like “real t*tties like Tootie” again. Seriously, just don’t. Geez, is it too much to ask that a guest rapper’s verse have something to do with the song? And, is it still possible to get Kanye one of those Charlotte Mason contracts? Damn. But then again, I wouldn’t have let him mess up Common’s “Southside” (from Finding Forever) either.
Another punch in the gut: Justin Timberlake is on the album (“The Nature”), which isn’t automatically a bad thing anymore, but I don’t think Timberlake is much use without Timbaland. In fact, JT, after you’re done with “sexy”, could you bring Timbaland back? Thanks. Of course, if I had my way (which is frustrating, because I never seem to get it), I would’ve left “The Nature” off the album, along with “Go With Us” and “Hostile Gospel (Part 2)”, as they don’t strike me as being as fully realized as the rest of the album.
More than all of that, though, is the disappointment you’ll feel if you were hoping for a Black Star reunion on this LP. Sorry, it didn’t happen. Be sad if you like, as I sympathize with you, but don’t let it crush your overall enjoyment of the music.
Production: This is where it gets dicey. Ear Drum, in my opinion, is a superb album, constructed from a blueprint of ’70s soul with a hint of gospel. Others might find it “soft” in comparison to the Black Star album or even some of the beats from Quality or The Beautiful Struggle. It’s not a “banger”, it’s a “cruiser”, possessing finesse in place of a heavy hand. Much of the album is in the mid-tempo range, which might leave some listeners with the impression that the songs sound alike, despite the mixture of producers as diverse as Madlib, Just Blaze, Hi-Tek, Kanye West, Will.i.am, Pete Rock, Kwame, and (gulp) Justin Timberlake.
If you take out the two wack songs at the end (“Go With Us” and “The Nature”), Ear Drum is a well-crafted body of work, providing a strong listen as a whole instead of peaking with a couple of standouts. Some noteworthy flourishes include: the backdrop for “Country Cousins” that hints at a play on Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Reasons”; the twinkling piano in “Eat to Live” and “Hostile Gospel (Part One)”, with the latter sounding like somebody traveled back in time and hired Scott Joplin to do the honors; the soulful choruses in “Everyday Man”, “More or Less”, and “Soon a New Day”; the continuous croon behind Kweli’s verses in “In the Mood”, which I admit some people won’t like; and the squealing horn on the breakdowns in “Say Somethin'”, much like the sample in LL Cool J’s “Funkadelic Relic” from his 14 Shots to the Dome album.
The rock influence of “Going Hard” from The Beautiful Struggle doesn’t appear here, not even the guitar riff in “Rush”, and you won’t find a beat that stands out from the pack like the Kanye West production of Quality‘s “Get By”, the song that’s most synonymous with Kweli’s name. The choir-style vocals in “Hostile Gospel” are the closest Ear Drum gets to following the “Get By” formula for success.
Subject Matter: Here, Talib Kweli shines, as Ear Drum presents a variety of topics but manages to make them sound like they all belong together. The for-the-ladies tracks like “In the Mood” and the danceable “Hot Thing” keep company with reflective, contemplative tunes like “NY Weather Report” and “Everything Man”. He’s got a few words for others in the field, too, like this scathing assessment in “Holy Moly”, where he urges rappers to “master your speech and be eloquent”:
How you hard, the cops lettin’ 50 shots off?
Baby Jay-Z’s with the knock-off Scott Storch.
You are not Short, you are not Katt.
You not a player or a pimp, money, stop that.
As opinionated as we are as listeners, Kweli doesn’t mind giving us an earful of his own views. In “Give ‘Em Hell”, he favors a “spiritual” outlook over one based solely on religious affiliations, particularly where such an affiliation privileges one belief system (in this case, a Christian viewpoint) over other philosophies and faiths. As he did in Quality‘s “The Proud”, he addresses negative stereotypes of Muslims and, by pointing out that “life is full of miracles”, he advocates the advantages of people working together instead of being divided.
But the part of Kweli’s Ear Drum that keeps ringing is “Eat to Live”. Like Langston Hughes’s poem “Junior Addict” in which a young boy becomes a drug user, Kweli narrates the plight and struggle of a young boy in poverty. Kweli’s first verse shows us how vital our basic needs can be, especially our need to eat. It’s hard to pray or effect change in the world when you’re hungry and, as long as there are starving people, it’s difficult to gauge and assess “progress”.
The cleverness of the song manifests in the second verse, when Kweli links food consumption with our consumption of information. “My rhymes got nutritional value,” he says, and he goes on to explore our reliance on “the media”, connecting our feeding habits to our daily news feeds.
It’s not hard to see how the basic desire to eat permeates our daily lives. It’s reflected in the way we speak: when we call our significant others “sugar”, “honey”, “cupcake”, or any of the other “sweet nothings” we might choose; when we call an argument a “beef”; when a scared person is labeled as a “chicken”; when a chauvinist is a “pig”, or when an attractive person has “great buns”. Kweli’s “Eat to Live” suggests that physical and psychological forms of hunger, leading to actual or virtual consumption, are intertwined and rooted in a need for fulfillment and completion. Through his journey, Talib Kweli reminds us that we must maintain physical and mental health in order to be free. If he keeps bangin’ on our eardrums, we’ll eventually get it.