Hostile Gospel

Originally published in the Stool Pigeon

That old chestnut about the disappointment of meeting your heroes is true, for the most part. Not that I technically get to ‘meet’ Talib Kweli; rather, we chat over the phone while he’s bussing around the States promoting his new album, Ear Drum.

‘Chat’ is also something of a misnomer in this case: Kweli answers maybe four questions, constantly drifting in and out of a conversation about a fallen American sporting hero with someone else on the tour bus. By the fifth question he seems to have completely forgotten that I’m still there, engrossed in whether or not the aforementioned ball player hung on to his job because he made a public apology for whatever it is he did. It’s rather an interesting conversation. I might well have stayed on the line to find out more were I not due to DJ at my sister’s 18 th birthday party within the hour – a party at which, incidentally, I drop Say Something off the new album. It doesn’t go down particularly well, although this probably has less to do with the inherent quality of the tune and more with the fact that 18-year-old girls only like songs that Sara Cox tells them to like. And Sara Cox, to be fair, is unlikely to be opening her promotional copy of Ear Drum anytime soon.

The lovely lady at Warner Bros, horrified at how short, sharp and shit my interview turned out to be, promises to send me some Kweli quotes to pad out my piece – a gift horse whose mouth I’m in no position to start inspecting. When these finally arrive, however, they’re actually quotes from major American periodicals gushing about how good Ear Drum is. ‘His most accessible CD yet,’ says Entertainment Weekly. ‘Undeniably heartfelt and thought provoking,’ says the Associated Press. Billboard, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times are just a few of those that seem to agree.

Coverage of this calibre is something of a PR coup for an artist who for years has been the embodiment of intense underground integrity. Kweli first entered the hip hop community consciousness alongside Mos Def as one half of Black Star, their self-titled debut album in 1998 setting the tone for the intricate and ceaselessly cerebral rhymes with which the Brooklyn-born MC would go on to make his name. In a summer when most rappers were lyrically celebrating the size of their cars or seeing how many bikini-clad video extras they could pack into their rooftop swimming pools, Kweli was busy dropping resonant, relevant hip hop that covered everything from the legacy of the slave trade to the cultural implications of Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye (‘one of the truest critiques of our society,’ according to Kweli’s sleeve notes).

Kweli with Mos Def in the Black Star days

Subsequent releases ranged from collaborations with producer Hi-Tek (2000’s Reflection Eternal) and a pair of solo albums (Quality in 2002 and The Beautiful Struggle in 2004) to mixtapes, cameos and leftfield collaborations (including the epic Y’all Stay Up on the Youngblood Brass Band album Unlearn). Not for him the extended hiatuses of artists like erstwhile label mate Pharoahe Monch; Kweli, it seems, is incapable of slowing down.

“I do try to stay prolific,” says Kweli during a rare break from his sporting forecast. “I realised a long time ago that was the only way for me to remain relevant. I don’t have hit singles like some artists, so I have to keep up a constant stream of material to remind people what’s going on.”

Hit singles are something that the powers behind Ear Drum appear to be banking on, but Kweli certainly hasn’t sold out. In January of this year he released Liberation, a collaborative mini album produced by Madlib and available as a free download from the Stone’s Throw website. Nor has he lost his infectious flow or relentless social commentary – certain tracks on Ear Drum, including the heartbreaking ghetto gospel Eat To Live, are as convincing a paean to the political power of hip hop as anything he’s written to date. But this is unquestionably his most mainstream album yet – a major label flexing its collective muscle and reigning in big name collaborators in an attempt to turn Kweli into a Kanye. As such, the album features no less than 20 tracks put together by a litany of producers from Madlib and Pete Rock to Hi-Tek, Just Blaze, Will.i.am, Kwame and many, many more, giving it a patchwork feel that Kweli admits isn’t exactly ideal.

“It’s easier to make a classic album with one producer, because you get one sound. There’s a wealth of producers on this album, but they’re all influenced by the same style. Terrace Martin’s style is very different from Madlib’s, but they’re both guided by 90s urban hip hop. The boom bap, the soul shit, the jazz shit.”

Then there are the lyrical co-conspirators, from bona fide badasses like Kanye and KRS-One to a couple of artists whose commercial viability far outweighs their underground credibility – Norah Jones and an appalling Justin Timberlake being the most obvious examples. The end result is a record that seems more determined to destroy dance floors than oppressive government policies; to move as many feet as minds. Gone is the pensive Kweli seen ruminating on the sleeve of Quality; the guy on the cover of Ear Drum is mad, bad and blinged up to the back teeth.

“I like to go to a lot of parties,” he says, “so my ear is definitely fine-tuned for tracks that work well in clubs. I’m known for the lyrical stuff, for dropping progressive rhymes about subjects that matter, and I want to keep on doing that. But at the same time I’m an entertainer. I’m out there trying to make tracks that get people dancing as well as thinking.”

And who knows: if Warner gets its way and Ear Drum moves Talib Kweli into the mainstream, then perhaps my sister and her friends will be calling for the rewind at her 19th birthday party. For now, though, they only have ears for Kanye.