erasing clouds

Talib Kweli, The Beautiful Struggle

reviewed by dave heaton

"Life is beautiful, life is a struggle, life is a beautiful struggle," reads the Mos Def quotation in the liner notes to Talib Kweli's new album The Beautiful Struggle. The sentiment that Kweli's Black Star rhyming partner expresses in that quote runs through the whole of the album, from the lyrics to the music. On the one hand, this album holds some of the sharpest dissections of society and most astute portraits of human pain that Kweli's delivered yet. On the other side, it's optimistic, filled with moments where Kweli and his companions are soaking up the joys of making music, and celebrating love and life. Musically the album is Kweli's densest yet - most of the tracks are layered with sounds. Yet those sounds aren't jagged and rough, they're sweet and smooth, mostly overlapping R&b singers' voices and melodies that hearken back to classic Motown and Stax sounds.

It could be said that this is Kweli's most overtly commercial effort yet, with commercial R&B singers (Mary J Blige, Faith Evans, Anthony Hamilton), top-of-the-charts hip-hop producers (The Neptunes, Kanye West), and catchy hooks everywhere . One track ("We Got the Beat") even points toward Lil Jon-style crunkathons. Yet nothing's as simple as it seems. Check out the Charlemagne-produced first track, "Going Hard," and ask yourself how commercial it is, really. It sounds like it at first, but is it? There's an aggressive rock n' roll bounce but also moments of stillness and a pretty piano ending; there's an R&B singer on the hook but also a business that's almost claustrophobic in places. And then there's the lyrics, which reference struggles in Sierra Leone and advocate a hardcore approach that's about being smart, not rough. "The revolution starts today" is the note the song ends on, but the album will reveal that Kweli sees the revolution as a personal struggle as much as anything, about each human growing and improving as they struggle to survive.

The Beautiful Struggle is a complicated album. It's the fullest-sounding album Kweli's released yet, with more going on than on any of its predecessors (each of which has sounded bigger and more developed than the one before it). And it also veers the closest to commercial hip-hop, R&B and pop territory, both on ballads like "We Know" featuring Faith Evans and on roughneck anthems like "Back Up Offa Me." Yet he's by no means dumbing down his music - his rhymes are sharper than ever, plus more varied in tone and style, and his lyrics are filled with perhaps even more sensitivity, intelligence and heart. Neither the hurt that's encapsulated in the melancholy yet hope-filled "Black Girl Pain" or the open-hearted expression of love within "Never Been in Love" would fit very comfortably within your average commercial hip-hop album. And musically the album is more complex than it seems, too. There's pop hooks and glitzy beats, but more often than not the range of the song comes off as deeper the more you listen to it. "We Know" sounds ready-made for quiet storm radio, until you realize how effectively the song captures the sweet feeling of a Jackson 5 love song. "Broken Glass" might be Neptunes-engineered for airplay, but it's got a killer cowbell part, plus a rather bizarrely phrased hook. "I Try" feels like a remake of Kweli's last album's hit ("Get By") at first, but then listen to the Latin jazz piano part, or the weird crowd noise that jumps in and out around the chorus.

"I have trouble trying to write some shit that bang in the club through the night/while people suffer tonight/lord knows I try," Kweli raps on "I Try." The genius of The Beautiful Struggle, and Quality (and, in a starker, simpler way his other albums as well), is how well Kweli's music shows awareness of both the use everyday people have for music in their lives and the way that music can make people think. He uses the music he sees as beautiful to express the struggles of life, and what results is both accessible and insightful. On the final track, the title track, he casts aside the idea that he's a political rapper and in the next breath cries out for those in pain and issues a call for action to help change the world. That might seem like a contradiction, but it's heartfelt and honest. The side of Kweli that doesn't want to preach keeps him focused on what'll shake asses, while his heart keeps him rhyming about subjects that matter.

Issue 27, October 2004

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