When Talib Kweli adopted a more mainstream rap sound on his major label debut, Quality, the end result was mixed. While it resulted in some of his best work to date (the Kanye West-produced “Get By,” “Joy,” “Gun Music”) it also resulted in some of his worst, most notably the DJ Quik collaboration “Put it in the Air,” which saw the otherwise intelligent and thoughtful rapper seeing his name attached to a horribly misogynistic and just plain bad party rap. Considering the, ahem, quality of most of the material, a few bad steps was forgivable. But it was enough to make me, as well as other fans, skeptical of his future work.
His latest album, The Beautiful Struggle, sees the emcee collaborating once again with former partner in crime Hi-Tek, whilst recruiting the talents of Kanye West, The Neptunes and Charlemagne for the work behind the boards. The end result is, again, somewhat mixed. And this is the problem with Kweli sticking with his decidedly mainstream approach. As an MC, his skills are beyond compare. His fluid rhymes flow so perfectly with the music that whatever the backing track, it’ll probably sound good. But not every track sounds as fresh as it could be, and that’s the problem.
The record starts off strong enough, dispensing with irritating intro tracks and beginning with “Going Hard,” which works well as an intro on its own. It just so happens to be a fully thought-out song. Thank you for that, Kweli. Some of your contemporaries could learn a thing or two about trimming unnecessary filler. Kweli presents his case in this song: “I got a part to play/we going hard these days/ Fuck the harder way, we’re doing it the smarter way.” It’s, in a way, the rapper’s mantra. He avoids the lowest common denominator and he makes a point of taking the high road. But “Back Up Offa Me” follows, which seems far too reactionary and sub-par by Kweli’s standards. But “Broken Glass” follows, putting everything back on track with some hot beats, courtesy of The Neptunes and a narrative involving strippers on drugs (in the least glamorous way, mind you).
“We Know” and “A Game” are somewhat forgettable, but nice enough. But the Kanye West-produced “I Try” picks things up again, with more of West’s trademark epic sound. Say what you will about his solo work, but when he and Kweli team up, the product is nothing short of brilliant. Ah, but high hopes get shattered yet again with “Around My Way,” which borrows the hook from The Police’s “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic,” albeit filtered through the slow jam hit machine. Somewhere, P. Diddy is counting all of the Police hits left to pillage.
The rest of the album follows this pattern, veering back and forth between brilliant, okay and horrible. It’s not necessarily Kweli’s fault, though his choice of collaborators isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be. The Beautiful Struggle is, by no means, a bad album. It’s a half-great album, actually. It’s just that, unfortunately, the other half doesn’t even come close.
Talib Kweli – Quality
Kanye West – College Dropout
Common – Like Water For Chocolate
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.