Words by Matthew Mundy
I must admit â€“ I haven’t been checking too closely in the last couple of years for Talib Kweli. It seemed like he reached his creative peak with Reflection Eternal, where he had settled comfortably and happily into the expansive, soul-drenched sonic landscape Hi-Tek created for him. The beats weren’t flashy, Kweli didn’t try too hard, and nothing about the album seemed forced, something that has always been one of Kweli’s problems. He’s not an especially charismatic or smooth emcee â€“ as opposed to his sometime partner in crime Mos Def, who bounces and moves with the beat, Kweli often just barges his way through the song, overstuffing his rhymes while ignoring the suggestions and demands of the beat. It’s not always a bad thing, but unfortunately he let this tendency bleed into the actual crafting of his albums, where we saw Kweli overreaching and trying to make club hits, enlisting the hottest producers and trying to shoehorn his style into theirs. The clumsy, misguided attempts at stardom weren’t a good look, and I was worried that he would spend the rest of his career chasing that dragon.
Imagine my surprise then when I digitally unpacked Ear Drum for my considerable listening pleasure (its official release is still a couple of weeks off). The Kweli I knew and loved from the halcyon Reflection Eternal days is back and, once again, seems comfortable in his own skin. The first three songs provide more than sufficient evidence of his return to form. “Everything Man” is a pure throwback to Train of Thought â€“ a smooth, understated beat courtesy of Madlib, consisting of a velvety soul loop, with Kweli calm and relaxed as he slithers across the beat. It’s a gorgeous little piece, and lyrically offers an admission of sorts that bodes well for the rest of his album: “I tried to fit it in the same rhyme, but realized I can’t be everything to everyone at the same time.” “NY Weather Report” showcases more of the soul-infused beats Kweli excels on, and he thankfully refrains from the aforementioned overstuffing he’s frequently guilty of. He’s one of the few emcees that suffers when he sounds like he’s spitting to save his life â€“ his best material feels like it bubbles up to the surface, rather than smashing through.
“Hostile Gospel” is an early highlight as well. Just Blaze laces a banger for Kweli, and it sounds like a more hard-edged, aggressive “Get By”. The choir on the hook makes a nice juxtaposition to the hard-hitting drums and soulful pianos that back some of the more passionate social criticism I’ve heard in a minute, stock full of quotables. “Country Cousins” featuring UGK is a new look for Kweli, but it’s a keeper as well, with Kweli stealing the show over a string-heavy, tranquil beat, doubling up his flow and setting the pace for Bun B and Pimp C.
“Electrify” is another soulful joint, this time a Pete Rock production, and features the nicest hook on the album, all easy come, easy go confidence and charisma. “More Or Less” finds Kweli linking up with Hi-Tek for an eerie banger, with disjointed voices fluttering around heavy drums compelling the song forward, with Kweli letting loose on the demons he spends good chunks of this album cataloguing and attacking. Check these gems out: “More originality, less biting off Pac and Big / More community activism, less pigs / More Blacksmith and Def Jux, less Geffen and the rest, â€˜cause the rest suck, they got the shit all messed up.” It’s an absolutely virtuosic performance.
It’s not a classic album though, with “In The Mood” marring an otherwise solid run of songs with another trip down the Kweli’s â€˜song for the ladies’ path, one littered with the corpses of past efforts. It’s got an overtly repetitive beat, too satiated with its looped coos to fit in anything else, and an uninspired lyrical performance featuring lumbering, inelegant clunkers like: “Cats all sappy like romantic flicks / Dude get a clue like Colonel Mustard in the study with a candlestick.” “Soon The New Day” is a similarly unimaginative and bland track, while “Oh My Stars” is stuck with an insipid beat that overextends itself as it tries to reach bohemian inspiration and profundity, with Kweli stumbling along at the side.
The missteps aren’t too glaring or egregious to blight the album though, and Ear Drum serves notice to Kweli’s continued relevance, after almost slipping off the radar with a few albums more notable for their gaffes than their triumphs. It seems like he is back on the right path though, one replete with the soulful, understated elegance he excels with, rather than the flavor of the month, strained efforts at stardom that tarnished his last couple of albums. It seems he’s finally realized he can’t be everything to everybody, and while his strengths are unlikely to garner platinum plaques or super stardom, his fans are probably far happier with this incarnation of Kweli anyway.