Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Talib Kweli, Eardrum

Of all the pseudo-underground, ‘conscious’ rappers and that I discovered in the late ‘90s (Talib Kweli, Mos Def, The Roots, Common, Jurassic 5, etc.), I’ve always been the most fond of Kweli. Mos Def has more charisma, and though he only chooses to show it so often, seems to have the most overall talent. Common is the most suave. The Roots have the best live presence. Jurassic 5 were the most positive force in music at their peak. But Kweli’s the workhorse, the most blue-collar of the group, and beyond that, he seems to be the most honest, the most unflinching about his view of the world.

Flaws and honesty are huge with me, and Kweli has both. For one thing, unlike the others I listed, he doesn’t have that single perfect, definitive album. Mos has Black on Both Sides. The Roots have Things Fall Apart and/or Phrenology. Common has Electric Circus and/or Like Water for Chocolate. Kweli has created possibly the best songs of the group (“Four Women,” “Get By,” and “Broken Glass” stand out the strongest for me), but he hasn’t made the perfect album yet. After listening to, digesting, and admiring his latest—Eardrum—I can say that he’s only beginning in that pursuit.

Talib Kweli is no longer just a Brooklyn rapper—he’s an entrepreneur. He created his own vanity label, Blacksmith, and he created Eardrum as an introduction to the label. He’s not looking to become a new Jay-Z (he won’t pull off an “I’m not a businessman/I’m a business, man” lyric any time soon), but he obviously wants more a) money and b) say in the world of hip hop. He’s signed on acts like Jean Gray and Strong Arm Steady, and I’m sure they’ll be putting out albums soon. However, Kweli is obviously the biggest talent and the brightest light of Blacksmith, and for the label to be a success, he had to bring his A-game on Eardrum.

Did he? Well, it opened at #2 on the Billboard charts, so he did something right.

Eardrum is at once all that’s right with hip hop and a lot of what’s wrong with it.

Now, before I get too far into Eardrum analysis, I have to say...this is an impossible album to review and compare to other albums. There’s so much going on here, with 20 tracks (not unusual for a hip hop album, though about half of those tracks are usually skits or intros or outros), and roughly 15 guests ranging from the predictable (Blacksmith artists Jean Gray, Strong Arm Steady), to the relatively predictable (Kanye West, Musiq Soulchild), to the slightly unexpected (KRS-One, UGK), to the totally-out-of-left-field (Justin Timberlake, Norah Jones). A lot of songs work, some don’t, and over the course of so many songs and 70+ minutes there are numerous ups and downs.

In other words, if you were to trim about 5-6 tracks (chosen by me) from this album, you’d be left with probably the best album of the year. But how do you judge an album with lots of greatness but a little too much filler? Are the hits more important than the misses? (With an iPod that can quite easily just skip over the mediocre tracks, I’d say yes, but that misses the point of judging the album as a whole, now doesn’t it?)

Being that I’m not sure how to review such a heavy book, so to speak, let’s make this an itemized review.


Lyrics. If Kweli has one skill that puts him far above other MC’s, it’s his lyrical skill. As I referenced in another post, Jay-Z said as much with his “If skill sold/Then truth be told/I’d probably be/Lyrically Talib Kweli.” (Kweli apparently agrees, with his “If lyrics sold/Then truth be told/I’d probably be/Just as rich and famous as Jay-Z” response). On Eardrum, as with everything else he’s ever released, Kweli brings his A-game. No subject is unprotected—religion, hot girls, his children. He raps about everything, and he does it well.

He nails down culture as a whole with a simple lyrical technique on “More or Less”...”More uprising, less sanitizing...More building, less destroying...More jobs, less unemployment...more marijuana, less coke...more schools, less prison...more freestyle, less written...more serious s---, less kiddin’...more history, less mystery...more beyonce, less britney...more happiness, less misery...”

He has fun with a woman on “Hot Thing”...”I watched you dance across the floor to the title track/You ‘bout to get me “Off the Wall” like you’re Michael Jack’/I make a scribe in your beauty my sacred duty/I will write a song, write a book, write a play, make a movie.”

He speaks deeply about growing up poor on “Eat to Live”...

My little man go to bed so hungry
Get up, go to school with his nose runny, come home with his nose bloody
His sister laughin, he like "What's so funny~?"
'Til she drowned out by the sounds of hunger pains in his tummy
Nuttin in the freezer, nuttin in the fridge
Couple of 40 ounces but nuttin for the kids
Little man know to eat to live but he don't wanna leave the crib
The kid who punched him in his face house right down the street from his
He went anyway, more scared to face his moms
She'll beat him soon as she flip out, seein his face scarred
Walkin past the dopefiends with they smoke to the place of God
Hopes and dreams pourin out the holes in they face and arms
Little man in the face of harm if he don't eat
He need energy so when he go to school he can compete
And keep up, all he got is bodegas
But hey he only got enough a for quarter water and a Now or Later
Anyway, grandma say Jesus'll be here any day
Good - cause with nuttin to eat it's gettin hard to pray
He attacks every subject with brains and wit, and lyrically Eardrum is as good as just about anything he’s done.

Spirit and Delivery. Kweli gets his point across with more than just the words. The delivery has to count for something, and kweli’s reserved-but-intense tone (and his variety of cadences) serve the spirit of the words well. Some have been critical about these things, but I’ve always seen it as a strength.

I was about say that Kweli has a lot of activism in him, but that would be an over-simplification. He’s not trying to get people to rise up against the system, and he’s not telling people “Vote or Die!” He’s actually said that “I don’t be f---in’ with politics” because there’s just no point. If nothing else, Kweli is trying to get people to take control of their own thoughts and wishes (while shaking their butts, of course), and this comes across in his voice. Even in a laid-back song, there’s intensity there, and it always keeps my attention. Which is good because...well...the beats on Eardrum are iffy at best.


Production. Halfway through my first listen of Eardrum, I was ready to unleash a rant about the production tendencies of your average hip hop producer in 2007. Let’s put it this way: when the best hip hop of 2007 just makes me reminisce for the good old days of 2002, I think it’s safe to say hip hop is still in bad shape. In 2002, guys like Kweli and Common were experimenting with beats and sounds, and they created albums that covered a lot larger scope. Now half the songs on every hip hop album I buy sample generic R&B tracks. And it’s Kanye West’s fault. If Nelly helped to kill half of hip hop with stupid anthems about teeth and rims and his overwhelming catering to the lowest common denominator, then it’s my theory that Kanye is strangling the other half. He re-introduced the ‘70s R&B sample into the world of hip hop, and he did it so well that everybody does it now. And well...the depth of quality in ‘70s R&B was so shallow that it allowed disco to emerge. Most of these R&B samples sound exactly alike, and there are way too many of them in the first half of Eardrum...despite the fact that Kweli enlisted a different producer on almost every song.

Blown opportunities. When I saw the ‘guestlist’ for this album, I was quite thrown. Norah Jones? Trying to woo the AAA market? Timberlake? Aiming for mainstream? UGK? Trying to shore up the Houston base? Despite the questions, there were opportunities for greatness, and while some of these collaborations were strong...wel, they could have been stronger.

I’ve ranted before about when rappers bring in a great, unique singer and give her a simple line to repeat ad nauseum (a la Mary J. Blige on Kweli’s “I Try” or Lily Allen on Common’s “Drivin’ Me Wild”). If your’e going to bring in a great singer, let her sing great! Norah isn’t given a ton to work with on “Soon the New Day”, but she makes the most of it. She gets a little room for expansion and she uses it all. Kudos to her.

As for the others...Kweli and JT’s collaboration, “The Nature”, is alright. Nothing amazing, pretty generic chorus...honestly, it’s about what I expected it to be. What I didn’t expect was to be bored by the Kweli/KRS-One collaboration. That was a match made in conscious-rapper heaven, but “The Perfect Beat” just never takes off. Nor does “Country Cousins”, featuring UGK (just as Abe Froman was the sausage king of Chicago, UGK are the hip hop kings of Houston). It was an interesting idea to pair up Houston’s finest with Brooklyn’s, and with sturdy production—I imagined a really deep, southern beat—this could have worked. The ‘70s soul sample just doesn’t cut it, though.

Then there’s Kanye. In “In the Mood”, he adds a somewhat humorous (in a juvenile way) verse that seems totally out of place with the rest of the song. I guess it’s too much to ask for him to match the tone of the song with the tone of his guest verse.

(I’m hard on Kanye here, and while it’s relatively well-deserved—he really hasn’t done as much to further hip hop as I think he could—he’s still in a position to do great things for the future of hip hop. He is to hip hop what George Bush thinks he is to Iraq—he broke it, and he may be the only one who can save it.)

I should mention, though, that Blacksmith signees Strong Arm Steady do a very nice job on "Go With Us"...a good enough job to clinch that I'll buy the next album they put out.

Length. When Outkast put out Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, I loved the attention they were getting for it. Hell, they won the Best Album Grammy. It was fantastic. was also an exhausting listen. Lots of experimentation, lots of highlights...and lots of wasted space. Combining the two efforts might have ruined the point of the ‘Andre 3000’s brain versus Big Boi’s brain’ concept, but it would have also made for one helluva listen. As it was, it’s a great iPod album (skip the crappy parts), but it’s almost impossible to listen to all the way through. It takes two hours, and there is plenty of filler.

That’s a problem with Eardrum, and not only is there some excess, but it all seems to be located in the first half of the album. Certain songs are just unnecessary, and others are decent but repetitive of themes better enunciated in other places on the album.

So there you have it. Lots of greatness, many flaws. Don’t think for a second, though, that this isn’t worth getting. Right now I’d give it the edge over Common’s Finding Forever for Best Hip Hop Album of 2007, and we’ll see if Kanye has anything to say about that.

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