Review of 'The Beautiful Struggle' by Talib Kweli
When it comes to lineage, Talib Kweli is pretty much hip-hop royalty. As one half of the Black Star movement (with Mos Def) and a predominant part of the Rawkus label, Kweli has been contributing to the definition of hip-hop for years. Respected in more 'conscious' hip-hop circles, Talib Kweli has so far failed/refused to capture the attention of top 40 radio.
On this second solo outing Kweli re-establishes his position as a (reluctant) 'political rapper' with a simple concept: 'Life is beautiful. Life is a struggle. Life is a beautiful struggle.' Patriotism, the war on Iraq and poverty are themes peppered throughout the album with a consistent reference to struggle. On the set opener, 'Going Hard', Kweli spits: 'Fuck the harder way, doing it the smarter way... The bullets start to spray the revolution starts today.'
From the top it's clear that The Beautiful Struggle is a slice of raw expression - a snapshot of one man's thoughts at a particular time, in a particular context - and that's what really makes the set shine.
This is not to say that The Beautiful Struggle is overly self-conscious. The 1980s throwback rock/rap crossover 'We Got the Beat' and the album closer, 'Supreme Supreme', are grade A cuts of prime fun, danceable, infectious hip-hoppery. You can feel most of this set being played in low-riding cars at high volume late at night even if you prefer to sit back with a glass of Merlot.
As well as less well known, arguably hungrier producers, Kweli rhymes over backdrops from the Neptunes, Just Blaze, long time collaborator Hi-Tek and current Golden Boy Kanye West. Mary J Blige makes an appearance on the West-produced 'I Try' but thankfully Kanye's trademark helium-sampled vocals are omitted in favour of a piano riff and a relentlessly punchy bass line. The Philly-tinged 'We Know' featuring Faith Evans and 'Around My Way' give the set breathing space and take Kweli into previously uncharted waters.
The guest list also includes Rawkus family members Mos Def and Common, as well as Jean Grae, whose contribution to 'Black Girl Pain' deserves particular attention. But the set is undeniably Kweli's baby. Even the producers avoid leaving clumsy fingerprints on their work.
It is perhaps on the album's title track that Kweli's own struggle is most clearly expressed. He is frustrated with the church: 'All you hear is contradiction'; and the government: 'The motherfucking Democrats is acting like Republicans.' His remedy? Not what you might expect. In Talib's mantra the revolution is personal. Regardless, Kweli's closing line is delivered to move revolutionaries of any persuasion: 'The struggle is beautiful - I'm too strong for your slavery.'
Rarely does this package sound self-indulgent or overly planned. For this reason the album succeeds in bridging the gap between 'conscious' rap, too often misconstrued as 'artsy', and the more widely accepted tone of hip-hop without giving into the demands of either. The Beautiful Struggle isn't flawless, it's just real. A confident, strong stand alone work that relies heavily on what many believe is the point of hip-hop: genuine expression.
Talib Kweli will be supporting Kanye West on dates around Britain this year.