I think it is finally fair to say that Talib Kweli was the disappointment of the stellar Soulquarian draft class who ushered all the "neos" of modern black music into the new millennium. The Soulquarians, as spread in a classic Vibe photo, were ?uestlove and Black Thought of the Roots, Common, Jay Dee, James Poyser, Erykah Badu, Kamaal (Q-Tip), D'Angelo and, standing out like Screech in Saved by the Bell, Talib Kweli.
We accepted him though, because he showed promise. His lyrics were layered and, dare we say, "deep," but sounded forced. He quoted people like Toni Morrison, Chinua Achebe and Jessica Caremore in his rhymes, at the risk of sounding way too geeky. But, I guess because he had that prepubescent voice and pre-peach-fuzz, almost pitiful looking face, we gave him another chance. We figured, "He's drinking milk, and one day he, too, will be charming like his big brother Mos Def and maybe pull girls like his big cousins Common and Kamaal."
Here we are at Beautiful Struggle -- his fourth studio album, his second solo -- and it seems Kweli's best days are already behind him ... even if his voice still sounds as if it hasn't hit puberty.
You know it's bad when people are fiendin' more over the producers you're working with than over you. In the months leading up to BS, there was more buzz about him working with the Neptunes, continuing with Kanye West and re-uniting with DJ Hi-Tek, than there was about hearing Kweli. Sinking him even further, when BS songs were leaked to the Web, download hacks balked back. He barely got love on his home turf of Okayplayer.com.
And the production is just aiight. For the five-star production artists he landed, he obviously got them at Grove City rates. The opening number "Going Hard" employs guitar riffs and drum rolls that Kweli's Spy Kids-voice can't match. His lyrics are important as ever, rhyming about rappers minding to wear diamond necklaces when kids in Sierre Leone are getting blown to bits over the mines. He gets tough, spitting, "Those who would trade in their freedom for protection deserve neither / not a name, not religion, tradition, we learn Jesus / turn the other cheek, inherit the Earth, just stay meek / fuck the way you speak / you try to run, we chop off your feet."
Smart, but unconvincing.
His return work with Hi-Tek is decent, particularly "Back Up Off Me," with its slick-groove melody and electronica vocals. It tries to make a man out of Kweli, but he somehow doesn't measure up with lyrics like "you comin' at me like you don't know me / you think you do, but you probably wrong / I'm surrounded by more babies than Ashanti's song / 'aww, baby' / I know you don't get it." He has to be careful with that, reminding listeners how we're too uninformed to get his references. It's precisely that attitude that turns people off of "conscious"-type specimens.
That's as good as it gets, though. The Kanye West collabos are disappointing, especially the Mary J. Blige-assisted, annoying "I Try," which is trying too hard to be "Get By" from his last album. He wastes opportunity with true rock star Res with their sorry remake of the Go-Go's' "We Got the Beat."
What Kweli is missing, more than anything, is humor. He takes his self way too seriously. Fans were delighted when, on Kanye West's Dropout album, Kweli loosened up to spit about something other than American Legacy cover-story material. Somehow he failed to read those polls. In the past he used Dave Chapelle skits and dueted with unlikelies like DJ Quik and Kool G. Rap for spice. This BS is just more of the same, target-marketed toward the same choir, with the same twerp-voiced sermon.