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A few weeks back, I interviewed Talib Kweli at Nkiru, an African-American bookstore in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. During a lull

in the conversation, Kweli grabbed a copy of Cathy Scott’s The Murder of Biggie Smalls off the shelf and flipped through its pages. “Voletta Wallace is in here talking about [how] Puffy really wasn’t friends with Biggie. Like, towards the end, they weren’t even kickin’ it. They were just business partners,” Kweli says. Continuing his thought only after a pause, he adds, “Which is very interesting considering what he did immediately following.” For those who don’t know, Kweli was referring to “I’ll Be Missing You,” Sean “Puffy” Combs’ overblown but undeniably lucrative homage to his deceased

cash cow.

Most hiphop heads know Kweli from Black Star, a unit formed with thespian/rapper Mos Def. Unlike Biggie and Puffy’s, Mos and Kweli’s friendship has never been in question; the duo recently pooled their resources to save Nkiru from financial ruin and are now co-owners. But Kweli can relate to Puffy’s attempts to come from behind the massive shadow of the Notorious B.I.G. Last year, Mos’ solo debut, Black on Both Sides, went gold and catapulted him into that elusive celebrity stratum between underground and mainstream hiphop. Now Kweli and DJ Hi-Tek’s Reflection Eternal is about to hit the streets, and a lot of fans and critics will scrutinize the disc to determine whether Kweli, like Mos, can stand on his own.

Why is Mos the favorite son? Charisma. On Black Star’s efforts, his impeccable cadence and vibrant delivery were inviting and energetic; Kweli’s cluttered wordplay was difficult to follow. With each verse, Mos sounded comfortable, loose. By comparison, Kweli used too many punch lines and $10 words—it sounded as if he was straining to impress listeners. And whereas Mos brought considerable charm to the duo, Kweli appeared grave. His aggressive, revolutionary rhetoric mixed with hiphop battle lingo lent him an all-too-serious air.

Stubbornly, and ultimately to his credit, Kweli has chosen to refine his style rather than change it. The first two tracks of Reflection Eternal show that he’s figured out how to improve his pacing without sacrificing his clever use of language. On “Move Somethin’,” Kweli drops “lyrics that be fuckin’ with you/In the mental, pick any mental/Instru-, funda-, detri-…,” his inflection pointed over pounding marching-band elements. The angst-ridden soul-cruncher “Ghetto Afterlife” kicks off with: “These niggas ain’t thugs, the real thugs is the government/Don’t matter if you Independent, Democrat, or Republican.” Obviously, his rabble-rouser instinct remains intact. But rather than rub faces in revolution, Kweli peppers his tracks with political concerns. On “Good Mourning,” he rhymes, “What’s the meaning of ‘ghetto fabulous’?/Not riding the back of the bus/I’m a revolutionary antagonist…I’m probably on some government list for my rhymes/And you a fool if you don’t think that they already tapped your line.”

Most of Reflection is similarly deep, but much less dire. Kweli tackles the misconceptions and disappointments of romance in “Love Language,” which is pumped up with tripled-up kicks, spare snares, and Les Nubians’ airy multilingual lullabies. “Move Somethin’” and “Touch You” sound like definite crowd-pleasers. Even the requisite sucka-MC put-downs, “Eternalists” and “Down for the Count” (which features Rah Digga and Xzibit), are upbeat. Kweli closes out the disc with “For Women,” a sentimental Nina Simone cover that laces descending keys and mournful violins with detailed descriptions of distaff tragedy.

After the first listen, it may seem as if Talib Kweli single-handedly overcame his personal obstacles, broadened his range, and delivered a full spectrum of emotions with the help of a few seamless, melodic tracks. Aiding the illusion, Hi-Tek opens his mouth only once on the album—and a few magazines have even run advertisements for Reflection Eternal that almost completely excluded the producer. But the reality is, as Kweli sings on “Touch You,” “The rhythm, the rhythm, God bless the rhythm…Hi-Tek makes you nod your neck to the rhythm.”

The silent partner (aka producer) is a staple in hiphop, from Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince to Eric B. & Rakim. Certainly, not all sonic sidekicks have been effective or taken control of a group’s signature sound, but Hi-Tek is an architect in the tradition of greats such as Pete Rock or Gang Starr’s Premier. His moody, complex tracks are composed of puzzle pieces of digital bass, voice, drum, and random musical flotsam sensitively assembled into spare, fluid backdrops. Check the percolating bump, spooky vocals, and fleeting woodwinds underscoring “Too Late.” Hi-Tek snips and tweaks each layer to fit Kweli’s best moments and cover up his worst. He integrates soulful hooks and backup from vocalists as diverse as Vinia Mojica, Les Nubians, and Rick James with remarkable subtlety. The results are alternately lush and mellow, and always appropriate.

Despite Kweli’s every effort to the contrary—he shouts out Hi-Tek’s name constantly in song, in concert, in interviews—people are inevitably going to refer to Reflection Eternal as his solo album. But to deny Hi-Tek’s contribution to this collection is to ignore its spirit of collaboration. Kweli and Hi-Tek’s alliance dates back to before Black Star was conceived, and the two have been working together ever since. Evidently, Kweli had the time to develop concepts and lyrics for Hi-Tek’s beats, and vice versa.

With so many rap albums today pieced together from producers-du-jour by record-company suits, it doesn’t take much smarts to pick out the project forged by like-minded friends actually kickin’ it. CP