By Colin Stutz; photos by Marc Lemoine on April 18, 2013
A funny thing happened to Talib Kweli last night. Performing onstage with Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def) as Black Star, he was fixed on one guy in the audience wearing a T-shirt that read, in rhinestones, “More Tupac, Less Drake.” And, amidst this set, facing a couple thousand people, all Kweli could think was, “Why do you have to wear that shirt at my show?”
“They don’t like his art—not because of anything the artist is doing, but because that particular brand is being shoved down their throats,” Kweli says the next morning, walking Studio City sidewalks in Los Angeles (where he now splits bicoastal residencies with Brooklyn) and running through sentences with a steady pace and cadence. “Drake is talented, whether or not you’re a fan. If that wasn’t cracking on the radio right now, you’d hear that and say, ‘Oh, that’s fresh.’”
Similarly, at a concert last year, Kweli actually stopped the show to say something when he spotted someone in the crowd wearing a “Lil Wayne Sucks” T-shirt. A fan-filmed video appeared online wherein Kweli likens himself to Weezy, saying, “There’s a lot of division and a lot of lack of unity in hip-hop... [But] the similarities between myself and an artist like Lil Wayne far outweigh the differences... Before you judge anybody and their creative output, realize it’s coming from where they from and their emotional experience.”
But here they are, “fans” flaunting their hate at a Talib Kweli show like they expect him to agree, like Kweli is the antithesis to all mainstream rappers.
“The saddest part about it,” he says, adjusting his black hat in the sun, “they don’t realize that the closed-minded and narrow-mindedness are just as responsible for the stifling of the culture of the people that they’re railing against. If only the people who claim to love the craft would be more open to other people’s experiences in hip-hop… It’s like you see a rose and you don’t want anybody else to have it so you hold it and clench it until it dies.”
At 22, Kweli first broke out of the underground in the late ’90s with Black Star, teaming with Mos Def for a now-iconic collaboration that helped shift hip-hop away from the violent ends of Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G., making an example of the two legends on its first single, “Definition”: “One, two, three/Mos Def and Talib Kweli/We came to rock it on to the tip-top/Best alliance in hip-hop, Y-O/I said, one, two, three/It’s kinda dangerous to be a MC/They shot 2Pac and Biggie/Too much violence in hip-hop, Y-O.”
In 2002, following another landmark collaboration with Hi-Tek as Reflection Eternal, Kweli put out a timely solo debut, Quality, that helped launch him to the forefront of this socially conscious hip-hop movement that was supposed to change music and culture for good. Skilled and sophisticated, with production by Kanye West, DJ Quik and J Dilla, and a legitimate mainstream success in the West-produced track, “Get By,” Kweli—the son of two university professors, a learned student of hip-hop with a quick and constant flow, articulating his rhymes with an acute social awareness—was at the forefront of a renaissance that seemingly had no reason to pass as a trend.
Of course, that’s exactly what happened and as hip-hop moved further into the mainstream it did not subvert the system but, rather, the system subverted it. While Kweli was pushing to expand his musicianship on 2004’s The Beautiful Struggle, he was hit with a backlash from some fans and, meanwhile, noticed a larger change coming to the culture.
While supporting The Black Eyed Peas on tour, he was shocked to walk onstage and find himself performing at a full-fledged pop concert. He was coming out with his best hip-hop shit for thousands of 12-year-old white girls, he says, and it was just falling flat. The Black Eyed Peas were touring behind the massive single “Where Is the Love?” featuring Justin Timberlake, and as “conscious” as that hit was, singing of every atrocity out there like there must be a better way, it was soft. Kweli says it signified a change. “I knew they were huge but I thought they were still the same Black Eyed Peas,” he says, referring to the group’s Fergie-less days as credible, alternative hip-hoppers. “I didn’t realize that they were a pop band.
“That’s when it started to turn, where hip-hop is now that drunk cousin who showed up at the party; you tolerate it but are like, ‘Eh, I know you’re gonna act out,’” says Kweli, passing by manicured lawns that line the block. “It used to be you would go to a party and they’d play hip-hop all night and maybe a smattering of dance music. Now, it’s the opposite. And if it’s hip-hop, it’s played almost ironically. It’s got to be the most ratchet, down South, ‘dance, nigga, dance’ or some 2 Chainz records. You know what I mean?”
Meanwhile, in the face of such change, “consciousness” became something of a dirty word, Kweli says, but one that inescapably defined his career. Now, at 37 and after more than a dozen releases, for some, Kweli is still a savior. For others, he’s a pariah.
“Conscious hip-hop became something that you were like, ‘Oh fuck that, I don’t listen to that shit,’” he says. “For the artists that have remained conscious, it is a challenge. It’s one of the hardest things to do, to be relevant and be dope and still wear it.”
As if he were looking for proof, recently, for the first time in years, Kweli visited the popular hip-hop website Okayplayer. At one time, he would troll the comment boards to see what kids were saying about him, but stopped because he started to feel like the community had turned on him and was growing dismissive. Returning to gauge the reaction to the Attack the Block mixtape he released in September, he was disturbed to have these suspicions validated, even if the reviews were positive.
To wit, this post: “Yo, I stopped listening to Kweli a long time ago. I really can’t stand his music. He’s one of my least favorite hip-hop artists. But I cannot front, this Attack the Block is the shit. I love this Attack the Block.”
Another: “Are y’all done with this Kweli hate? Can y’all just admit he’s great?”
These kids were saying exactly what Kweli thought might be his ego playing tricks on him but was, in fact, actually just random hate. Here were people who had simply written him off and moved on to whatever else they found challenging.
“And that’s what I used to be,” he says. “But the fact that I have the ability to surprise people, like, ‘This is so good’…that bugs me out. For me, in my world, shit is great. I feel like my music has become better and I’ve become more prolific. I feel like I’ve connected a lot of bridges and remained relevant, but it’s bug how my perspective on it is different from some fan who’s trying to be hip.
“That’s why I’m moving away from being so hyper-concerned about what’s going on in hip-hop,” he continues. “I really can’t do it. My hip-hop credentials cannot be debated or doubted at this point. I’m not here trying to compete with Chief Keef. I’m not. I’m who I am at this point; it is what it is. It’s got to be beyond hip-hop. It’s got to be what I do. I can’t be following, trying to keep up with the industry.”
Like Drake and Lil Wayne and every other beloved or despised rapper, Kweli says he’s judged by his content and trapped in a box of public perception; typecast, if you will. And even with all of that in mind, the next part is still a little surprising; the part where Nelly—Cornell “Country Grammar” Iral Haynes Jr.—pulls up to Kweli’s house at 7 p.m. one night in a Maybach, with a driver, and stays until 7 in the morning, smoking weed and talking about music, Kweli teaching him about Madlib and J Dilla. Amidst it all, they recorded the track “Before He Walked” for Kweli’s new LP, Prisoner of Conscious, which became the thematic linchpin for the album—an unexpected alliance altogether.
“[Nelly and I] just talked about music’s impact and that’s kind of what his verse is about,” says Kweli. “That’s when I realized, ‘this is a guy who really loves music.’ Just the way he flows… And he’s really good at it, but his musical choices have made people be like, pshhh…”
Collaborations fill Prisoner of Conscious, including Seu Jorge, Busta Rhymes, Curren$y and Kendrick Lamar, but none feel as unlikely as Nelly. And, as could probably be expected, some have prematurely denounced the pairing, but in so doing have underlined Kweli’s crux of the album.
“He was the perfect artist to do it with because people box him the same way they box me,” Kweli explains. “I wanted him to be on a song that’s just rugged and something where he doesn’t have to talk about being in the club. When you think about Nelly, you’re not thinking about, ‘Here’s somebody who loves music so much, he sold 40 million records because he just felt from his heart.’ You think about Nelly as some sort of corporate thing. That’s just the way that he’s been presented, and I don’t think it’s fair to him as an artist.”
In preparing for Prisoner of Conscious, Kweli originally wanted to do a concept album of love songs, akin to Andre 3000’s The Love Below or Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, but it became something different, he says. “It evolved into me doing an album focused on the craft of telling stories rather than focus on the craft of emceeing.”
He likens it to De La Soul’s Stakes Is High and how the group broadened its focus on that album, “but maybe in a less direct way, in a more musical way.” Kweli explains, “I did an album where it’s less about how the world of hip-hop views me and more about what it is that I do. So I guess it was the opposite.”
His subjects vary from the political consciousness on “Human Mic,” which starts with Kweli speaking at an Occupy Wall Street protest in October of last year, to pure love song on the slow and tender “Kilos of Love,” which runs through lines of “love is…” this and that with steady cadence that creates a mesmerizing rhythmic effect. The title track, meanwhile, stands out with a heavy-rock chorus that seems to break out of the genre’s confines completely. And, throughout, horns and strings accent most tracks, giving a lush, live feeling to the album.
“I’m just trying to write love songs,” Kweli says, “which really means, on a more egotistical level, I’m trying to write songs that you love. And the best way that I can do that is write songs that I love and try to get as close and as honest as possible as I can to myself.”
But it’s the same with those other rappers, too, he continues. “Why shouldn’t an artist make a song about a strip club? If the people like it, people like it… If you want to talk about content, the same fan will tell you, ‘OK, the music sounds good, it feels good, the style… But I don’t like what you’re talking about.’ But then you can’t like Wu-Tang, either. You can’t talk about Onyx or Biggie or Redman or J Dilla, who rapped about hoes, going to strip clubs, having a big truck and smoking weed all day. So if you’re talking about content, a hip-hop purist is going to lose that argument every time, because they’re gonna try to sell you, ‘I like this because of the content.’ No, man, you like Biggie, too.”
Now sitting at a table on his backyard patio, facing his personal converted-garage recording studio, he stops for a second and takes a hit from a joint. Exhaling, he squints into the sun and speaks. “But that’s not who I am. I’m not the dude with the flow that people can automatically rap along to, and I’ve got to embrace that. That’s to be embraced as an artist, too.” F
This article is from FILTER Issue 50