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March 29 - April 4, 2001

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At the top of his game

Talib Kweli brings the Reflection Eternal tour to WPI

by Noah Schaffer

Talib Kweli doesn't have much use for the lame, thugged out rappers that record for major record companies. "My thoughts is too advanced for the artists on these labels/They come

sweeter than sable and softer than mashed potatoes," Kweli rhymes on his solo debut album, Reflection Eternal (Rawkus).

At the end of the '90s hip-hop finally rediscovered its potential. Brooklyn-bred Kweli is one of the shining lights of the new generation of hip-hop artists who've found that artistic and commercial success can go hand in hand. Like Common, The Roots and Mos Def, Kweli has put thoughtful, often political hip-hop back onto the record charts. Last summer, Kweli performed to a packed house at the Palladium as part of the Spitkicker Tour, a package that also featured the spell-binding Common and a rejuvenated De La Soul. But it was Kweli, appearing early on in the evening with DJ Hi Tek, who stole the show. Combining his rapid-fire delivery with an ability to make rap sound like great poetry, Kweli proved a difficult act to follow. He rapped between the beats, using his words to create a jazz-like feel.

Raised by an Afrocentric family, Kweli's first name means "seeker or student" in Arabic, while his last name means "of truth or knowledge" in Ghanaian. That's a good guide to Kweli's rhymes, which explore issues of class, race and society without getting preachy. But Reflection Eternal also pays attention to the dance floor. It's a paradox Kweli deals with in the track "Good Mourning" when he notes that "Some players is mad at us for just doin' our music out of love/Some underground heads is hatin' cuz we have fun at clubs."

In the 80's, the subject matter of Kweli's raps was examined by the likes of KRS-One and Public Enemy. "But I wasn't really into hip-hop in the 80s, you know, I was more concerned with playing baseball and being a little kid," laughs the MC over the phone from a Charlotte, North Carolina tour stop. Eventually, Kweli got a little older and replaced his baseball bat with a microphone and a pen. It was the early '90s, and hip-hop was being turned on its ear by intelligent acts like De La Soul, Tribe Called Quest and the Jungle Brothers. Kweli also says he was influenced by the skilled, boasting MCs of the era, like Big Daddy Kane and, earlier, Slick Rick. That mix of the artistic rhyme and the undeniable diss is what makes Reflection Eternal unique.

The album is the first time Kweli has released a full-length album with Hi Tek, his Cincinnati based DJ partner of five years. Kweli was already well known to hip-hop fans through his work with the group Black Star. Named after the shipping line used by Marcus Garvey, the duo of Kweli and Mos Def played a major role in reintroducing Afrocentric politics to hip-hop. They even organized benefits to save the Nkiru Bookstore in Brooklyn, where both Kweli and Def used to work. Black Star will release another album in the future, but for now its two members are each concentrating on their successful solo careers. "I've been on the road constantly since last March," reports Kweli. That has made it tough to record anything, much less write new material, "but maybe we'll be doing some free-styling in Worcester."

Opening up for Kweli is Akrobatik, a Boston MC. Along with the likes of Mr. Lif and Virtuoso, Akrobatik is one of the many up and coming talents who have suddenly turned Boston into a major hotbed of underground hip-hop. Many of Boston's most intelligent MCs have found large audiences by playing exciting shows at local rock clubs and getting airplay on college radio. Worcester's largely hidden hip-hop talents would be wise to take their cue from Boston acts like Akrobatik, who recently released The EP. Akrobatik has also garnered some attention nationally, releasing a single called "Internet MCs" on the highly respected Rawkus label, which has brought listeners the likes of Black Star and the ground breaking Soundbombing series. On "Internet MCs," Akrobatik pokes fun at would-be rappers who battle in hip-hop chat rooms and message boards, but who could never cut it on the streets.

This Saturday's show at WPI is a real coup for the students who worked to bring Talib Kweli to town. Local colleges frequently book big name hip-hop acts, but more often than not the headliners are yesterday's news, rather than an artist at the top of his game like Kweli. Rappers past their prime often turn to the easy money and guaranteed crowds at college shows. Run DMC, Naughty by Nature and Brand Nubian have all shown up in Worcester college auditoriums recently, and all turned in ho-hum performances that made it clear their glory days were long gone. That certainly won't be the case at Kwell's Show on Saturday night, which promises to be the hip-hop event of the season.

Talib Kweli and Akrobatik perform this Saturday night at WPI. For ticket information, call (508) 831-5201.

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