It’s not easy being Talib Kweli. The Brooklyn wordsmith has toiled in the gap between critical praise and commercial success since he and Mos Def released Black Star in 1998. Together the two spearheaded a renaissance in hip-hop favoring substance over style—rappers who could spit as fast as lightning but didn’t say anything of meaning quickly found themselves obsolete.
2002’s solo LP Quality bubbled under the mainstream radar but fueled the word-of-mouth surrounding Kweli—the LP’s first single, the explosive “Get By” also saw the beginning of a partnership that would benefit two artists; the single helped break Kanye West as an uber-producer, and West’s subsequent rise to astronomical heights has kept Kweli’s momentum as “conscious rapper extraordinaire” going.
So it caught me off guard when Kweli remarks on his new LP’s title track, “They call me the political rapper / Even after I tell them I don’t fuck with politics / I don’t even follow it.” Truth is; Kweli has made a name for himself with his biting commentary on politics, sociology, the state of music, and the war being waged in America’s urban neighborhoods. For whatever reason, Kweli rejects this image of himself—perhaps part of the reason The Beautiful Struggle sounds so commercial. Kweli’s use of mainstream producers (West returns, with the Neptunes, Amadeus, etc.) makes Struggle fit perfectly within the confines of urban radio. Even DJ Hi-Tek, the man behind the lo-fi, jazzy sound of Black Star and Reflection Eternal returns with a more bombastic sound. And a slew of famous guests (Mary J. Blige, Faith Evans, Common, Anthony Hamilton) do nothing to distract anyone from Struggle‘s desire to go big.
On the surface, Struggle‘s sound would lend one to group Kweli in with the faceless, nameless group of bland MC’s on the mainstream market. Talib Kweli, however, has always been known for his brutally honest and literate lyrics, and his knack for working around the English language is a skill most rappers envy. The Beautiful Struggle is no different, a concept album about the state of America’s youth and how we will leave the Earth for them. “Going Hard” sets a high mark for the rest of the album to follow, commenting on the misplaced priorities of most rappers, “People ask me how we wearing diamonds / When there’s little kids in Sierra Leone losing arms for crying while they’re mining / Probably an orphan who’s mama died of AIDS / He built a coffin workin’ often but he’s never paid / Forever slaving in the world that’s forever cold / Becoming the man of the house at 11-years old.”
Like Sufjan Stevens’ Greetings From Michigan, Talib Kweli uses his position to speak on behalf of those who cannot find the voice for their own personal struggles. It’s this breadth of scope that unites us all, the premise that (as the liner notes read) “Life is beautiful. Life is a struggle. Life is a beautiful struggle” finds a common ground for us all—despite race, social and economic status, or location in the world; universally, we all have our struggles. Despite what they may be, we can all find inspiration in the words, “Fuck the harder way / We doin’ it the smarter way.”
Kanye’s return, “I Try” acts as a sequel to the explosive “Get By”, finding a common theme within both song’s pentatonic piano melodies and inspirational everyman mantras. “I Try” and “Around My Way,” the stirring, soulful tribute to Brooklyn (“All the corners filled with sorrow / All the streets are filled with pain / Around my way”) that follows form the album’s powerful centerpiece.
Unfortunately, Struggle lacks “Lonely People,” Kweli’s commentary on the shallowness of America’s young party crowd. The song, which couldn’t be included because of problems getting clearance to use the song’s foundation, a sample of The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” instead can be found on The Beautiful Mixtape, which Kweli released earlier in the year. Surely, “Lonely People” would have been a welcome replacement for songs like “We Got the Beat,” yet this is no fault of Kweli’s. The album’s constant delays, with the legal battle to clear “Lonely People” and early demo’s being leaked and bootlegged on vinyl around the country have hurt Kweli’s momentum. But Struggle arises stronger because of these troubles, which give the album’s permeating sense of hope more substance. It also assures that Kweli will actually get the commercial recognition the underground has always afforded him.
Jay-Z once rhymed, “If skills sold truth be told / I’d probably be / Lyrically Talib Kweli.” With Kanye West now the hottest thing going, and Jadakiss’ “Why?” flying on the sense of cynicism among American youth, the time couldn’t be better for Talib Kweli to take his rightful place as Greatest MC on Earth. When today’s future evolves into tomorrow’s present, today’s youth would be best served to listen to Kweli and approach life with his refreshing sense of knowledge, hope, and desire to right society’s wrongs.