Thursday, 8 February 2007

Talib Kweli & Madlib – Liberation

Talib Kweli’s been solid but stolid since his critical high-point, the 1998 conscious-rap classic ‘Black Star’ collaboration with the similarly-frustrating SUV salesman Mos Def, almost a decade ago. In advance of his slightly-anticipated new album ‘Ear Drum’ he’s decided for a change of approach: throwing his ouevre at the wall and seeing what sticks. So we get impresario-veteran Kweli, showcasing his Blacksmith protégés (including the impressive Jean Grae) on the ‘Movement’ mixtape, which boasts an odd and slightly exhausting mixture of clever wordplay and gangsta posturing. And then we have the crossover-potential Kweli on UGK’s ‘Country Cousins’, in which the man behind ‘Brown Skin Lady’ defends himself for consorting with the likes of Pimp C. Then we have comic-book geek Kweli, guesting on RZA’s ‘Afro Samurai’ soundtrack to decent effect. Finally, giving the backpackers what they want (according to, um, Kweli), here’s our man rhyming off nine of Madlib’s tasteful indie-soul concoctions.

Whether this glut of releases represents astonishing versatility – stylistically and commercially – or directionless desperation depends on your sympathy for Kweli’s artistic agenda and for his MCing. The former is commendable and appealing: Kweli is a hip-hop purist, a one-MC-one-DJ performer in love with language and eager to raise the tone and the profile of his art-form; but he’s also broad-minded and keen to embrace the range of forms that hip-hop can take. ‘Over the Counter’ is a winning reversal of Clipse’s nihilism, as we find Kweli “on the corner selling it” (political enlightenment, that is!). In this respect, he’s a fellow traveller of Nas, but without the self-importance, and with better beats. Madlib is on fine form here, laying warm, flute-heavy samples over his trademark loping, looping rhythms. Madlib’s consistency occasionally encourages Kweli to raise his game, as on the urgent corner-store robbery narrative ‘Engine Running’, or to loosen up (through slightly awkward references to “the ladies” and “ass”).

On the down-side, Kweli’s MCing is, as usual, worthy and wordy, often piling on similes for their own sake, to little effect (“tripping like Cameron Diaz in Tanzania … using poetic license like onomatopoeia”). Kweli’s often so humourless that you’d swear the Ying Yang Twins were created to restore the cosmic balance. This undermines his artistic ambitions: on. The song that best encapsulates this tension is ‘Happy Home’ – a Black History Month family story of hope, education and love set against the backdrop of Dylan and Vietnam: it’s hard to loathe the sentiment, but that’s what it is: sentiment, not far removed from that ‘60s’ TV movie from a few years back.

Kweli cuts himself a little slack with the format: it’s a stopgap, and it was released for free – a disposable product you’ll want to keep (it's available on retail from February 20th). But his problem since ‘Black Star’ remains the same, in spite of his recent productivity: without Mos Def’s witty, elastic flow as a counterpoint to his stiff, righteous bluster, Kweli may be good for you, but he’s no fun.


More fun:

Macktronic hook you up.

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