The most telling thing about Talib Kweli’s debut solo album, Quality, is that tap-dancer Savion Glover performs a solo on it. Glover, who has done work with everyone from Spike Lee to Puff Daddy, is spectacularly misused: Because you can’t see him, you miss the artistry of his contribution. Had Kweli not announced Glover’s presence with “I got my man Savion in the house,” you’d be forgiven for believing the dancer’s solo was nothing more than a second-grader tapping on a school desk with a couple of pencils.
If the Brooklyn-born rapper were really interested in putting tap-dancing on his new record—a bad idea, but an original one—he could have at least looked further than the only tap-dancer in the world who gets publicity. But it seems likely that Kweli was less interested in having tap-dancing on his album than he was in having Glover on his album.
That’s the problem with Quality: It’s a record brimming with broad ideas, most of them embodied in its cross-section of ill-conceived cameos. The idea of the underground is represented by the Cocoa Brovaz, Black Thought, and Pharoahe Monch. The idea of the mainstream is represented by Kanye West. The idea of neo-soul is represented by Jill Scott and Res. Even the idea of misogyny is present, in the form of West Coast gangsta DJ Quik.
It’s an expansive array of ideas, to be sure, but—as is the case with most rap albums—the main attraction forgets to bring any himself. Instead, Kweli assembles a collection of forced punch lines and Afrocentric one-liners and hurls them at us in track after track. The result is not an album, but an elongated sermon that will be familiar to anyone who has ever listened to Public Enemy or KRS-One. Black nationalism seemed cool and new to hiphop in the late ’80s, but coming from Kweli it sounds tired. This isn’t as much because the message is outdated as it is because Kweli is an awful messenger. Indeed, the most crippling aspect of Quality is Kweli’s frequent inability to rhyme on beat.
Ever since his first appearance as a soloist, on 1999’s Soundbombing compilation, Kweli has been rhythmically challenged. In the past this was less of a problem: His sometimes forced delivery resulted from his grappling with more complex ideas than your average rapper’s. But on Quality, most of the complexity has vanished—and still Kweli fumbles couplets and trips over forced similes. There is a desire to give a rapper like Kweli credit for even occasionally going beyond standard rap themes such as clothes and hos. But at the end of the day, a rapper must still be able to execute, no matter what his subject matter. When he can’t, he does his subjects a disservice.
“Joy,” for instance, is supposed to be an inspirational tribute to the birth of Kweli’s kids. But even when paired with former Black Star partner Mos Def, Kweli fails to breathe new life into a theme as old as humanity, settling for wordy but content-free lines such as “I cried tears of joy when they put my daughter in my arms.” In the track’s last verse, Kweli attempts to present the big picture and somehow winds up with even less to say: “Do it for the seeds, y’all/In their formative years when they need y’all,” he rhymes. “We gotta believe in what we conceive, y’all/It’s deep, y’all.”
Kweli’s shortcomings as an MC are even more evident on “Guerilla Monsoon Rap,” which enlists the lyrical talents of Black Thought and Pharoahe Monch. Over West’s ever-present strings, the trio trade verses for a relatively thrilling four minutes. Even Kweli’s game seems elevated. But in the company of two rappers who not only are great lyricists but also possess masterful flow, Kweli is clearly out of his league. “I hit MCs with the grip of death like I was a Vulcan,” raps Black Thought, and he might as well be talking about Kweli: “Biting off more than you can chew creates orphans/Rappers spitting nails into their own coffin.”
When he’s not being outclassed, Kweli takes turns into the straight-up bizarre. “Shock Body” pairs self-celebrating lines such as “This music I bleed to it/I raise my seeds to it/I MC with the truest in the game” with ’70s game-show instrumentation. And “Won’t You Stay,” which features longtime Kweli collaborator Kendra Ross, presents the head-scratcher “I’ll treat her like she my girl/I asked her, ‘What’s wrong with dat?’/She like, ‘It just ain’t right/There’s so many more women than men in the world.’”
“Talk to You (Lil’ Darlin’),” a reworking of an old Eddie Kendricks tune, is a low point not just for Kweli but also for the famed production team the Soulquarians. Meandering and listless, the track sounds like nothing so much as a karaoke version of a Marvin Gaye song—with a suitably amateur-hour rapper to front it. Even on this plodding number, Kweli manages to fumble the beat and deliver a message that is neither distinct nor remarkable. “I want to be the one you run to when pain confronts you/You’re everything, and sometimes I get nervous when I’m in front you,” he raps. “Look how love do/I practice the art of war for you, like Sun Tzu.”
But the most puzzling cut on the album is the DJ Quik-produced “Put It in the Air,” which finds Kweli reciting an uncharacteristic hook: “If you got a spliff, then put it in the air/If you want a rift, then put it in the air/If you shakin yo’ ass, put it in the air/If you makin’ it last, put it in the air/If you leave the crib strapped, then put it in the air/Take ya hand off your gat and put it in the air/Snook your bud in the club, put it in the air/Got nuthin’ but love, put it in the air.” And Quik provides not only the track but also the sort of predictably misogynistic verse that is the standard for gangsta rap: “All he do is disrespect me, keep callin’ me bitch…/What the fuck you think I’m here for?/Not to love you, I hope.” It’s baffling that the author of “Brown Skin Lady” would put such a track on his album.
Then again, maybe it’s not: Quality is an album that attempts to cross into thug territory—and lounge territory and soul territory and even triphop territory—while still allowing Kweli to maintain his image as a political rapper. But Kweli neglects to cover home base. Political rap has been taken to new areas by rappers such as El-P and Mr. Lif—MCs who both rhyme better and think deeper than Kweli. No track on Quality rises to the level of El-P’s “Patriotism” or Mr. Lif’s “Post Mortem.” Instead, the cuts are dumbed down in an attempt at mass appeal. But Kweli isn’t a mass-appeal rapper, either: There isn’t a single radio hit on Quality. Having sacrificed his identity, and not really elevated his skills, Kweli has delivered an album that tries to be everything to everyone but ends up being nothing to anyone. CP