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
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.