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Kweli’s latest not up to par

Kenyatta Storin | Thursday, November 4, 2004

On his last album, Jay-Z rapped, “If skills sold, truth be told, I’d probably be lyrically, Talib Kweli.” If anyone is worthy of such a compliment it would surely be Talib Kweli. Since 1998, when he and Mos Def blew critics away with their classic album, “Black Star,” Kweli has consistently wowed critics with a flow that is both skillful and intellectual. Contrary to most of the rap you hear on the radio, which is often about as thought provoking as a Schwarzenegger flick, Kweli raps about societal issues, with an emphasis on the harsh realities of life. But despite his critical acclaim and skillful flow, he has always fluttered just underneath mainstream popularity. In “The Beautiful Struggle,” Kweli clearly tries to ride on Jay-Z’s shout out and bridge the gap from underground to mainstream, as it is by far his most commercial album to date. Kweli arms himself with a slew of hit-making weapons, bringing in popular producers The Neptunes, Kanye West and Just Blaze, as well as radio-friendly singers Mary J. Blige, Anthony Hamilton and Faith Evans. He even brings back old partner, DJ Hi-Tek, who helped jumpstart Kweli’s career. On paper, “The Beautiful Struggle” has the makings of a pop-juggernaut like Kanye West’s “College Dropout.” However, as it turns out, while Kweli’s rhymes are strong for the most part, his supporting cast lets him down and the result is an awkward album that is not catchy enough for followers of mainstream hip-hop, and may alienate some of his longtime underground fans.Kweli is often called a political rapper, and he clearly takes offense to this, for on the title track of the album, Kweli raps “They call me the political rapper / Even after I tell ’em I don’t [expletive] with politics.” Even though he is political in the sense that he addresses important political issues in his rhymes, there is certainly some truth to his words because he does not tell listeners to condemn a particular political party or take political action. Instead his rhymes are more about the trials and tribulations of life, which he calls a “beautiful struggle” in reference to the album’s title. Under this general theme, Kweli reflects on a number of different topics and the results are generally quite satisfying, and often rather provocative. On “We Got the Beat” he urges people to be wary of ignorance: “It don’t matter if you’re Muslim, Hebrew, or you a Christian / Information is the newest religion.” And on “Around My Way” he criticizes Americans who suddenly became patriotic after 9/11: “The way be saluting flags / Wrapping them around our heads / When [people] ain’t become American till 9/11.” Kweli’s only real lyrical misstep is “We Know,” a love song with mundane lines like, “Hey baby / Look like you need a break tonight / Let me make it right, baby, won’t you stay the night.” Despite Kweli’s generally strong lyricism, none of the songs really draw you in as much as they should primarily because of a lack of strong beats and occasionally weak choruses. The production showcases a wide range of different styles, but after a few listens, it loses much of its charm. Even The Neptunes’ “Broken Glass,” Kanye West’s “I Try” and DJ Hi-Tek’s three tracks, do not match the quality of their past work. This is not to say that the beats are bad, but rather that they simply do not quite reach the high bar set by previous Kweli efforts.While most of the choruses work, a handful of them are weak and forced. In particular, the album’s lead single, “I Try” suffers from this, where Mary J. Blige repeats the words “I Try” over and over, which sounds a bit too much like Kweli’s last single, “Get By.”Kweli is an impressive MC, but he might be better off going back to his roots in future albums. “The Beautiful Struggle” has its moments, especially lyrically, but overall it lacks the unique sound and feel of his previous albums. Although the so-so production is not entirely Kweli’s fault, his decision to use pop producers in the first place is questionable. Simply put, Kweli tries too hard to join the ranks of mainstream rappers, and it clearly shows.