Talib Kweli, NYC 1999
Talib Kweli in NYC, 1999 (cropped). Photo: Mika Väisänen (Wikipedia / CC BY-SA 3.0

Talib Kweli Tells His Story along with a History of Hip-Hop and New York City

Talib Kweli’s memoir, Vibrate Higher, is an excellent documentation of hip-hop’s history, New York City in the ’80s and the life of this exceptionally talented man.

Vibrate Higher: A Rap Story
Talib Kweli
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
February 2021

Talib Kweli is a statesman of conscious hip-hop. He’s also an urgent and vital recording artist who has adapted to the seismic shifts in the music industry and maintains an important presence in the genre. A hip-hop pioneer fed on a diet of classic and Golden Age rap, Kweli found early mainstream success, particularly with his collaborations with Mos Def, before forging an influential solo career which featured classic tracks like “Get By” (a collaboration with Kanye West), “Definition” a track he recorded with Mos Def as Black Star and his classic debut album, Quality (Rawkus, 2002). His discography is a dazzlingly diverse testament to the scope and breadth of Kweli’s talent and his reverence for not only his predecessors but his peers, as well.  

Rap music is a major part of Vibrate Higher: A Rap Story, particularly its history. The book serves as a gorgeous record of the influence of early hip-hop and how one of its greatest practitioners found himself immersed in the culture. Vibrate Higher isn’t just a story of hip-hop music and culture, but also a coming-of-age story of a young, intelligent artist who was finding his voice and place in his society in the 1980s and ’90s when old-school hip-hop and the Golden Age of Hip-Hop saw artists like Kool Moe Dee, Grandmaster Flash, KRS-One, Public Enemy, De La Soul, and MC Lyte, among others, as they created new, innovative sounds that electrified popular music. Kweli helpfully offers a list of 16 albums during this fruitful era that have influenced his work.

And yet, Vibrate Higher is also a loving and in-depth portrait of New York City during the pre-Giuliani years when areas in Brooklyn shifted in demographics through white flight and gentrification. Born to educators, Kweli was raised in a household filled with literature, cultural pursuits, and of course, music. Though very smart, his schooling was disrupted by truancy episodes, prompting his parents to send him to boarding school, where he shines; initially, an experimental theater student at NYU, education, art, and literature left a lasting impact on his work.

The story of Kweli’s ascent is one of hard work, diligence, and community. The beauty of the author’s story is that he pays tribute to all of the characters in his world who accompanied him on his journey. He formed crews with friends in school, writing and creating sounds from rudimentary tools available like tape recorders, radios, and televisions. He was crafting music and finding his voice and stage persona performing in early venues, like poetry jams, learning from his early mistakes and gaining confidence as a performer.

In these passages, Kweli writes of a creatively fecundate atmosphere, where fellow rappers would contribute verses, DJs and producers would share instrumental samples, and singers would agree to croon hooks. Creatives would work together to foster an artistic community, a shimmery underground of hip-hop that sought to challenge and critique society and culture.

As Kweli’s fortunes and successes grow, the story becomes a fantastic chronicle of an artist’s fascinating career. Kweli acknowledges the influences of hip-hop’s golden age, but he also looked to other music genres, including Afro-Beat, when making his music. The passages where he details the craft behind his discography are among the most interesting. With an oeuvre that includes eight studio albums and various collaborative works, Kweli has amassed an impressive body of work. When going into the details, he writes of working with artists and the industry’s business side. Though primarily an artist, Kweli’s prowess as an entrepreneur also grew, due mostly to the fact that he was forced to protect his interests, as he found his relationships with major labels to be predatory and exploitative.

Though much of his career is predicated on underground success, Kweli also had a firm place in mainstream pop success, seeing some of his songs chart, even seeing his third LP, 2007’s Eardrum (Blacksmith / Warner), peak at number two on Billboard charts. The number one album that week was the soundtrack to High School Musical, which meant, Kweli notes cheekily, “To do better than me on the charts that week, you had to be able to look, sing, and dance like Zac Efron.”

His second album, The Beautiful Struggle, seems like a blueprint for more mainstream, crossover success with superstar guest appearances by Mary J. Blige, Faith Evans, Common, and John Legend, among others. Although he enjoyed some traditional mainstream success, Kweli also goes into the challenges that musicians faced in the new millennium when physical sales of albums dropped dramatically in favor of Internet sales. Kweli discovered that going the indie route would prove to be far more profitable and freeing than remaining with a large, major label that wasn’t necessarily equipped or prepared to meet the obstacles of a rapidly-changing business model. Kweli shares details of recording as an independent artist, going into such interesting specifics as producing the music, writing lyrics, even putting together cover art. It feels like a bookend of sorts, as much of what TKweli had to do as a young, up-and-coming MC, he had to return to, though with much more sophisticated equipment.

Though the most arresting parts of Vibrate Higher are when Kweli writes music, the stories of his personal life – in particular, his love life – is also compelling. His parents were dedicated educators who strove to raise Kweli and his brother Jamal with a love of education. (Jamal would go on to become a professor of law at Columbia Law School.) Though his parents stayed together to foster a stable and loving environment for him and his brother, they eventually would split up. Kweli pays tribute to his parents’ selflessness and honors their willingness to sacrifice for their kids.

He also writes lovingly of his own children as well as to their mothers. He’s bracing in his candour, owning up to personal failings that led to the breakup of his relationships. Yet he’s careful to be even-handed and fair, taking pains to ensure that no one comes off as a villain. It’s a notable effort, given how others have used memoirs to even scores.

That last point is what makes Vibrate Higher such a compelling and rewarding read. Kweli doesn’t gloss over passages in his life that may seem unseemly or unappealing, nor does he work to make himself off as an innocent. He has a clear-eyed perspective on the many episodes of his life, and he offers his thoughts on these important events with empathy.

There’s also a bracing intellect to the book. Unsurprisingly, Vibrate Higher is politically charged as well as personal (the book makes a great case for the claim that the political is personal). Though he loves Kanye West, he’s frank in his disappointment over the rap superstar’s support for Donald Trump and for his embrace of right-wing populist politics.

He also folds in issues of feminism and misogyny and racism and Black Lives Matter, offering astute observations, such as highlighting the opportunistic attempt to de-radicalise the work and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. As someone who grew up in such a tumultuous time as New York City in the ’80s and witnessed and lived through some of the most important moments of the past 40 years, Kweli has developed into a wonderful author. His synth and drum-machine scored childhood of the ’80s is lovingly written and reveals a genuine literary talent.

RATING 9 / 10
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