Talib Kweli needed a kick. After more than half a decade rolling with his perennially well-intentioned but occasionally bland partner, DJ Hi-Tek, Kweli needed a change. Their partnership produced four cuts on the classic self-titled Black Star album with Mos Def and then the well-received but surprisingly boring Kweli/ Hi-Tek solo record, Reflection Eternal. I always got the impression that Kweli was just a little too smart and energetic for Hi-Tek's bass-heavy beats. Kweli ballistically rhymed about freeing Mumia Abu-Jamal while Hi-Tek was just trying to keep up with his cadence and passion. So they parted ways, and then Kweli called up some friends to help him make his first true solo album.
And now, after that much-needed kick, some skillful radio-friendly joints, and a forum for his agenda, Kweli comes correct with Quality.
Quality opens with a hilarious intro from longtime friend and comedian Dave Chappelle, who rolls the R's and L's from his tongue while emulating an Eldridge Cleaver-like black leader and introduces Kweli as, among other things, "a ghetto philosopher," "the first black man to pilot an aircraft," "the nigga that invented the Nike Swoosh," and "the man that made Kool-Aid say 'Oh Yeah.'" It's decidedly genius.
Immediately after the intro, the album blazes off to a fast start with the Megahertz-produced banger "Rush." More a braggadocious spittin' session than an actual attempt at that pesky genre known as "conscious hip-hop," the song is more rock 'n' roll than Adidas and Kangol. Kweli chants over unrelenting power chords and insists that we feel the rush.
From there, the hand-clappy and piano looped anthem "Get By" moves the album into the realm that most heads hoped for with "Reflection Eternal." Over a beautifully spliced sample of Nina Simone's "Sinnerman," Kweli declares "We sell crack to our own out the back of our homes/ We smell the musk at the dusk in the crack of the dawn/ We go through 'Episodes II,' like 'Attack of the Clones'/ Work 'til we break our back and you hear the crack of the bone." The song is righteous and powerful, and hot damn, it's funky. Kweli has admitted on numerous occasions that Nina Simone is one his heroes. He does justice to her spirit, and Kanye West, the song's producer, gives me another reason to think that he's doing things with hip-hop no one thought ever possible. Like make Nina Simone sound funky.
West, something of a hip-hop Renaissance man, has worked with Scarface, Jay-Z, Kweli's collabo bro Mos Def and Dead Prez this year. For Quality he also produced two other songs, including the Al Green sampling "Good to You." The album's stop-start synths and Al Green's sped-up vocals give an urgency to Kweli's words.
Other cuts that fire on all cylinders include "Gun Music," a pro-gun anthem that advocates protection and security, not violence, and "Shock Body," a bouncy, poppy Peppermint Patty of song that sees Kweli comin' "tight with the quill."
But what makes Quality worth it is exactly what dragged down Train of Thought the slow and syrupy songs. More intelligent and musical songs such as "Joy," the celebration of birth, replace "Love Language" and "Too Late" from that previous album. Recounting his inspiration for breaking his ass in this rap game, Kweli, with Mos Def and Aretha Franklin's looped "I Get High" on the hook, tells everyone who'll listen that the sound of his child's voice is the sound of joy. "I'm so blessed to have a boy and a girl/ Everyday they bring joy to my world." Like he says, he's "doin' it for the seeds."
The doo-wop-esque, "Talk to You (Lil' Darlin')," featuring Bilal, is the kind of song I surely would have skipped over if I were 14 years old. I could almost feel myself going for the skip button the first time I heard it, in fact. But Bilal's Caramello croon grows on you, and the song recalls the good Motown mixed with LL Cool J's "I Need Love." This one is honest and "real." Kweli isn't afraid to be called a pussy by his bling-bling, womanizing colleagues.
There's been some rumbling among positive hip-hop fans that this album lacks the cohesive sound that Hi-Tek's consistent production brought. Let's squash that right now. It's the variety of sounds that enhances this record. The West Coast crunk of DJ Quik sits alongside the Detroit trunk funk of Jay Dee, literally and figuratively, on Quality. Few MCs can balance the anti-jingoistic intelligence of "The Proud," with the reliably dope MCing of "Guerilla Monsoon Rap." Talib Kweli does it with apparent ease.