Talib Kweli Greene loved rap and he always wanted to be a rapper. In the beginning, his nom de plume was Genesis. By the age of 14 (circa 1990) he was dedicated to his craft, networking and promoting for and around the major Hip Hop clubs in New York when he wasn’t practicing his spit in Washington Square Park with a crew that included fellow Brooklynite “Black” Dante Smith, Jean Grae, Da Bush Babees and John Forte, who he would soon be rooming with around the corner at NYU. By the mid 90s Hip Hop in New York was diverse, fragmented, filled with scenes and cliques. There were the bohemian park dwellers downtown, swaggering hustlers uptown like Marcy transplant Jay-Z and a bunch of Goths who would soon be switching styles, Staten Island was its own Wuniverse and in Queens Mobb Deep would give way to hoods like Capone and Noreaga, setting the stage for anti-hero 50 Cent and his Gangster Pop Revival. Talib was an element in this swirling cauldron and very aware of his environment, the multiple voices competing for the throne in New York and the ear of the greater Hip Hop community. This was the direction he chose.
Talib is the Park Slope son of two college professors and his first name means “student” in Arabic. He bounced from Roy H. Mann, to Brooklyn Tech to a private school in Connecticut to experimental theater at Tisch, dropping out after Freshman year to pursue his passion. Things moved quickly. A bond with a beat making friend of a friend from Cincinnati bore fruit, as did a partnership with Junior High buddy Mos Def who had begun making appearances with artists the two had grown up worshipping, the aforementioned Babees and De La Soul. Their group, Blackstar, shared a spiritual lineage with Def Jux’s brand of New York indie underground, witty punchlined obsessed B-Boyism with a dash of El-P’s avant-garde inaccessibility. Their album dropped on September 28th 1998, the same day as A Tribe Called Quest’s swan song The Love Movement. The album was a mixed bag with its fair share of tinny beats and one or two half boiled back packer concepts but it displayed a vision, an alternative to what many considered a shiny suit plague. One song in particular stood out, their 55 point rookie showing that gave us a glimpse of what a Rawkus run mainstream would look like. They called it “Definition”, a vibrant homage to KRS-One blending “The P is free” with “Stop the Violence” as Talib and Mos traded rapid fire, studied Brooklyn minutiae. The song was enormous.
In a prolific flurry both artists had instant classics to their respective names by 2000 and were featured on a Soundbombing compilation that seemingly cemented a Rap dynasty in the making. Veterans like Common and The Roots appeared reinvigorated, excited about the direction Rap was taking and there were scores of young, hungry, equally idealistic troops champing to follow their lead. Blackstar championed a respect for Hip Hop history while promoting positivity, the pursuit of knowledge and cuddly Black Nationalism. It made great fodder for idealistic critics and a generation raised on P.E. and X Clan that thought it had lost its genre for good. In 2003 Mos had passed on his buzz for a punchline acting career, Talib debuted as perennially unsatisfying solo artist with Quality and 50 Cent sold 11 million albums.
One could argue that it was definition that short circuited Blackstar’s respective careers. Before they had even gotten their stylistic feet on the ground it had been annoyingly defined and categorized for them as conscious, a soundtrack for paging through Maya Angelou and grilling asparagus, music for white college students and black women. Like the intellectuals they were Mos and Talib resisted the label like the plague (a la De La). They considered it a dishonest articulation of their slant which contained multitudes. After all, they had grown up in Brooklyn too, they smoked blunts and got in fist fights. They actively campaigned against their designation, in retrospect probably a mistake for both. Because the question that remains then is what did their voices really sound like? Who were they as artists? How is this diversity conveyed through music? It was a problem Mos ran away from and Talib ran toward.
From his professional inception Kweli’s strengths as a lyricist first and a rapper second were clear. The ruminative “2000 Seasons” strikes the right note over its jazzy melancholic skeleton, a former Nkiru bookstore clerk weaving the wisdom of the ages into his conversational, slightly arrhythmic flow pledging underground fealty in a war for the soul of Rap. In many ways Kweli’s delivery suits him, it demands attention to the content and it’s his wonderful words that are his contribution to the medium. Early Talib insists that Rap can be more than fun. His analytical verses were serious and thought provoking. On “What If”, a 1998 guest appearance on an L-Fudge single he accomplishes these things without being high minded or pretentious, he owns the concept and takes his inquiry in several unexpected directions. Rather than posing a series of obvious left wing critiques Kweli asks “If you tore this wicked system down what would you build in its place?”. He’s a focused young man rapping with passion, behind a cause and a love greater than the furthering of his career. He’s not being fun but he’s having fun, not trying and it’s tangible. This is where Talib excelled on Mos Def and Talib Kweli are Blackstar and Train of Thought, diving head first into “4 Women” unconcerned with how such naked poetics and earthy Huxtablisms will be received while firing off gorgeous, fully formed insight and beautiful metaphors at will.
I haven’t heard a Kweli track since he went solo and self-admittedly more mainstream oriented, from Quality through Ear Drum that hasn’t smacked of effort. His strength as a writer has proven to be his downfall as an artist. He thinks too much, and it leads the listener to distraction. With “Brown Skin Lady” Talib was half of the greatest heartfelt Rap love song not called “Beautiful Skin” ever made, but in some ways it poisoned his future as no rapper I can think of since has made more uniformly cringe worthy songs intended for women. His Blacksmith mixtape work feels premeditated, he sounds uncomfortable and out of his element and it’s this lack of understanding his true strengths and playing to them that has sabotaged his career. Talib wants to resist his underground following, to make resonant chart toppers, rip street approved freestyles over someone else’s single of the moment, make rap and bullshit for the ladies but he simply doesn’t have the goods. Worse, he lost his identity somewhere along the way on his bid for prominence and hasn’t been able to regain form. Even on his retro grab Ear Drum it’s Kweli making a retro grab and the results are ho hum (ditto for Liberation as a ploy for some critical internet shine). Not bad just boring.
Last night I saw Talib at Brooklyn Bowl, a new ritzy upscale bowling alley/concert space in Williamsburg. It was my fifth or sixth time seeing him live. His old Washington Square running mate Jean Grae, now signed to Blacksmith was among the openers and remains one of the most endearing personalities you can see on stage at a Hip Hop show. Talib reminds me of Nas in that on stage his vibe is much changed from the person we imagine on record. Nas strides around with an emotionless “fuck you” expression draped in a Fila track suit with huge gold medallions hanging from his neck, Talib is all smiles and kinetic energy, jeans and a tight t, rocking Sam Rothstein sunglasses that don’t come off. The air was filled with shoulders rotating attached arms waving rhythmically to the beats, faithfully reciting the old favorites and not so much the new stuff. Always a good show, Talib carried the evening with his charisma. Hi Tek was on hand and according to legend a Reflection Eternal album is ready to go and there’s a Blackstar project somewhere off in the forever receding distance, one can only hope. It’d be nice to see at least one more W on Talib Kweli’s record. There are few artists that have put more time, care, thought and effort into their music and careers. A career that has been good, but not quite what we once dared to dream it could be.