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Rap music may serve as CNN for black folks, as Chuck D once famously observed, but the best hiphop artists aren’t just human news tickers—their exploration of issues is far more nuanced. Political MCs fall into two distinct categories. The urban griots, such as the Public Enemy frontman, illuminate the woes of the world succinctly and poetically. And then there are those who are little more than town criers, shouting about society’s ills without context, analysis, or grace.
Early in his career, Talib Kweli appeared to belong in the former category. His well-received Black Star project with Mos Def and DJ Hi-Tek and 2000’s masterful Reflection Eternal (also with Hi-Tek) cemented the wordsmith’s status as a political prophet. But on Kweli’s 2002 solo effort, Quality, the artist failed to live up to the role of enlightened truth teller, bagging Hi-Tek for an album filled with please-the-masses beats from producers such as DJ Quik that seemed at odds with his political tirades.
His latest album, The Beautiful Struggle, finds him less MC than lecturer. At its low points, the disc is bogged down by the same revolutionary gusto that made previous works a joy. More concerned with his own integrity than that of the music he makes, Kweli sacrifices fluidity and rhythm to better deliver his screeds. The rapper simply refuses to adhere to one of the most basic ideologies of the positive, socially conscious hiphop that he professes to love—that the method and the message are one and the same.
On this album, Kweli compares himself to thought-provoking, righteous acts such as KRS-One and De La Soul. But while he shares their worldview, he lacks their gifts of gab and their ability to make even the most abstract topics palatable. This deficiency is immediately apparent on Struggle: Kweli clumsily lumbers onto his soapbox on the very first track, the Charlemagne-produced “Going Hard,” laying down a rhyme with all the depth of a mother hectoring her kids to eat their veggies with the children-starving-in-China argument.
“You say you never scared/ There’s kids in other countries making jerseys, jeans, and sneakers they could never wear/Parents never there. They’re busy building homes they can’t afford to buy/Cars they can’t afford to drive/Working jobs that don’t support their life,” Kweli raps in the song’s opening. Subsequently, he discusses the middle passage and AIDS. He also tries, and fails, to squeeze the five syllables of “Sierra Leone” into an already tight sentence during a tirade about conflict diamonds.
Critics often laud Kweli for his refusal to dumb down his lyrics, but such praise is a slap in the face to conscious artists who have successfully married form with function. Hell, Kweli’s man Mos Def managed to make a record about the privatization of our water supply sound dope.
Devoid of the artistry necessary to edutain, Kweli’s political tirades do little more than illuminate the shortcomings of the subgenre. Rather than make us realize that politicized hiphop is an exciting alternative to most of the aural swill on the radio these days, Kweli refreshes the criticisms that this brand of music has faced in the past—condescension, preachy tone, and New York–centrism.
Struggle’s “Broken Glass” is a prime example: The song is a cautionary tale about a small-town girl who moves to the big city and gets caught up in a world of fast money and shady men. The slow-your-roll-little-girl ditty is an old standard in hiphop: Diamond D’s “Sally Got a One Track Mind,” and Tupac’s “Brenda’s Got a Baby” are forebears. But unlike those tracks, where the story lines inspire lyrical dexterity, Kweli’s seems hindered by its subject matter. It almost feels as though the song began life as a short story that Kweli really wanted on wax, and he refused to cut so much as a word for the adaptation. He seems too beholden to certain details and, as a result, he can’t quite get the rhymes off right. He struggles to fill space by stretching out short phrases and chopping up long ones. Forced to navigate this harsh tale without any verbal flourishes to soften the blow, the listener feels not so much informed as nagged.
On “Work It Out,” Kweli again reveals himself to be a less-than-masterful storyteller. Even the return of Hi-Tek, whose beats tempered his friend’s rabidity in the past, can’t save him from this finger-wagging song about resolving problems on the street, at home, and across the globe. He gets out a couple of clever tidbits: “Hate the topic but the closest people get to patriotic/Is red bull white vodka mixed with the straight [Hypnotiq].” But the line is more impressive on the page than it is vibrating from a stereo speaker.
Although Kweli would probably balk at the notion, the guy is at his best when he lightens up—just a little bit. Whereas his political raps remind us of the worst elements of that style of hiphop, his R&B collaborations remind us of the best such pairings. Although commercial hiphop has seen too many R&B singers cooing over bullshit raps, Kweli’s partnerships with vocalists such as Mary J. Blige, Res, Faith Evans, John Legend, and Anthony Hamilton are a smart move here.
The production on Struggle also helps Kweli tremendously in this regard. On Quality, his lyrics seemed to be at war with the commercial beats and R&B singers, but here, fortunately, he submits to their call. When he’s not trying to guide and mold with such ferocity, his sentences are sharper, his verses more clever, his flow a little looser. Kweli doesn’t completely omit the political speak just because a tempo is slow and friendly or someone is wailing in the background, but he does have a tendency to talk about issues in incisive general terms, rather than rambling specifics.
“I Try” with Blige, the first single from Struggle, is a standout. Kweli still drops knowledge, but he’s not trying to speed through an entire dissertation in under five minutes: he allows the soulful, cooing background vocals and piano keys to mellow his delivery: “Our growing pains get way deeper than Mike Seaver’s/Our uniform is white sneakers and white T-shirts/On top of wife beaters, we like to light reefers/The ’hood need us, but rappers just ain’t the right leaders,” he rhymes on the track.
Blige’s emotional, strained hook is the perfect accompaniment to the lyrics, and it’s always good to hear a Kanye West track that doesn’t have the producer adding his lyrical trademarks—repetition and poor timing—to the mix.
With “A Game,” Kweli delivers some of the most nimble lyrics on the entire album. He’s in braggadocious battle-rhyme mode here, and the cockiness suits him. It’s jarring to hear Mr. BK over a thin, crunk-sounding bounce track by Amadeus, but the beat’s shallowness allows Kweli to take a load off and enjoy the ride: “I wet my throat and get bent like a pelicans neck/I make a gentleman’s bet with my ghetto connect/ And I got a nine in my mind you can’t metal detect/I pull it out to your head and shoot from the hip/I fired 13 shots and left two in the clip.”
“We Got the Beat,” featuring Res and Kweli over a Planet Rock– inspired track, is more of the same. Kweli manages to sneak in some current affairs—he mentions SARS and “soldiers dying in petroleum wars”—but resists the urge to harp on them.
Suggesting that an artist needs to condense and simplify his material to make it more marketable is what soulless record execs are supposed to do. In Kweli’s case, it would be wise advice. He could go in the opposite direction and try to amp up his storytelling abilities and verbal skills, but after two albums he still doesn’t understand that —no matter how hard he tries—“Saddam” is never going to rhyme all that well with “bottom” or “stardom.”
On the title track, Kweli delivers one of the most insightful and, perhaps, self-referential sentences on the album: “Yo I heard and said the revolution won’t be televised/But in the land of milk and honey, there’s a date you gotta sell it by.” If Kweli wants to deliver the news to the masses before he loses their attention, he needs to continue to cut his style with sugary preservatives—it seems the easiest way for him to extend his shelf life. His brand of revolution may not be televised, but to have any impact, it has to be modified.CP