TALIB KWELI at the Phoenix (410 Sherbourne), tonight (Thursday, August 30), 10 pm. $29.50. 416-870-8000. Rating: NNNNN
Talib Kweli is back. It sounds overdramatic to make that statement about someone as low-key as Mos Def's ex-partner. But just listen to Ear Drum, his first album since 2004's disappointing The Beautiful Struggle. You'll see what I mean.
I agree with the consensus that Eardrum (Blacksmith/Warner) is Kweli's greatest solo album and the best joint to bear his name since Reflection Eternal, his brilliant producer-MC collaboration LP with DJ Hi-Tek.
Speaking to the Brooklynite as his tour bus slices through Colorado, I ask if he feels the same way.
"All artists think their newest is their best. That's the nature of art," he says. "So I'm glad people compare it to Reflection. Reflection Eternal is a great, great album. But I just think it's a natural progression from the last thing I've put out."
Progression? Make that a quantum leap. The Beautiful Struggle was the hiphop equivalent of stadium Pepsi - heavily watered down with Neptunes beats that were more ill-fitting than ill, plus cameos from Faith Evans and Mary J. Blige.
The equally uneven outing before that (his first official solo project, 2002's Quality) didn't live up to the expectations set by Reflection and, before that, Black Star, with the mighty Mos.
Quality and The Beautiful Struggle found him compromising and experimenting with commercial radio while grappling with his lofty reputation as conscious hiphop's poster boy.
But now that Eardrum is out, those two albums can be contextualized as signposts along Kweli's awkward road from respected MC to total artist.
"When I first started out," he says of his evolution, "I just cared about rapping. Then everybody said I was a dope rapper.
"But as you mature in your career, you care about music, making good music and songs that stay with people as they grow older, regardless of whether they're into hiphop or not."
Hence enduring material on the new record like the golden Madlib-produced Soon The New Day, featuring Norah Jones, on which Kweli speaks and sings profoundly about intimacy and one-night stands. Or the aerodynamic battle anthem Say Something, with his Blacksmith label signee Jean Grae, tightly produced by will.i.am, of all Pea-ple.
Or the Kanye-constructed In The Mood, featuring the stately vibes of Roy Ayers. Or .
The fact that Eardrum is the inaugural release on Blacksmith, the label Kweli built (prior releases have been under Rawkus/Geffen and Rawkus/Universal), helps explain its greatness.
While he never imagined he'd have to be a businessman (his latest goal is to sign MF Doom, but nothing's in the works just yet), all the control is healthy for him.
"It feels good," he says. "It wasn't the career path I would have picked, but it works because I can put out the music I want to put out and work with great artists like [Xzibit's crew] Strong Arm Steady and Jean Grae."
Still, some find Kweli's piety irksome. Heads have complained about his moral condescension for years, but that hasn't kept him from wagging his finger at his fellow rappers, telling them on Eardrum to be more serious and write deeper verses.
Then again, who can fault him for caring so much?
Kweli also reminds me that for every moralistic remark he makes, there's an invitation to party with him.
"I'm a Libra, so I do make definite statements in my music," he says. "But I also balance those out with things that are fun and entertaining and sound good to your ears.
"You take the bitter with the sweet."
Additional Interview Audio Clips
Kweli defines the meaning of "conscious rapper."
Kweli speaks about working with UGK.
Kweli describes the fall of Rawkus Records.
Kweli talks about asking "where were you the day hiphop died?" on Reflection Eternal years before Nas proclaimed hiphop dead.
Kweli comments on the movement to "ban the n-word", post Kramergate.