Artist Profile + Album Review: Talib Kweli – Gravitas

Talib Kweli is an emcee’s emcee.  Last month he put out an independent album, Gravitas, his 9th album overall, which is available now in digital format and will become available in CD and vinyl in February only on his website http://kweliclub.com/.  I was unable to include this album in my Top 30 Favourite Albums of 2013 Countdown because it came out in the middle of the countdown, and I didn’t have time to listen to it right away, but I’m giving it shine now.  Before we get into the album, let’s go through Kweli’s career and how I’ve been able to follow it over the years.

I first heard of Talib Kweli when I was 12 years old, around when “Get By” was all over BET, Much Music and radio stations.  Obviously that song was his biggest mainstream success, but it lead me to slowly dig into his older work, and that’s when I discovered the hip-hop classic known as Blackstar.  Talib Kweli first grabbed my attention with speedy flows and punchlines like “we go through Episodes Too like Attack of the Clones“, but he also had substance and meaning to his music that sunk in as I got older and matured.  As I went through his work with Mos Def as Blackstar, Hi-Tek as Reflection Eternal, and the new solo work he was coming out with at the time, I found that he was an extremely consistent emcee and could never really disappoint.

Talib Kweli first came out in 1998 as a duo with Mos Def, collectively known as Blackstar.  The one album they put out together is considered a classic by many, as they showcase a synergy that’s rarely matched and show strong technical skills as emcees without needing to be “hard” or “gangsta”.  They didn’t over saturate the music with unnecessary curse words, and made that mellow, feel-good hip-hop while maintaining lyrical integrity.  They made songs for the ladies, fun battle-raps most guys enjoy, spoke on social issues, showed humour in good taste and really made a great, complete hip-hop album.  This is the type of album you would use to show someone that hip-hop can be enjoyable without the exaggerated violence and misogyny.

After their debut, Mos Def and Talib Kweli went on to make solo projects.  Kweli decided to have DJ Hi-Tek produce his entire album, forming the group Reflection Eternal, and they put out Train of Thought in 2000.  Hi-Tek’s beats were a good fit for Kweli’s rapping, as the album flowed smoothly from start to finish.  Some of Kweli’s classic songs were on this album too, like “Good Mourning”, “Move Somethin'”, “Some Kind of Wonderful”, and of course “Down For The Count”.  Talib Kweli’s performance was consistent with how he started on Blackstar, as we got a similar balance of different styles and vibes.

In 2002 Kweli put out his first true solo album, Quality, by swapping the Hi-Tek production for names like J Dilla and Kanye West.  This is considered by many another classic album since it had Kweli’s biggest commercial success with “Get By”, one of the hardest raw rap tracks with “Guerrilla Monsoon Rap”, a classic intro by Dave Chappelle, and was overall a well-rounded album with both mainstream and underground appeal.  This album was my introduction to Talib Kweli and was one of the first times I heard Kanye West before even knowing who he was.  Other highlights on this album I haven’t mentioned yet include the hard-hitting trumpets and Xzibit trash-talk on “Rush”, the party vibe on “Waitin’ For The DJ”, and another classic collaboration with Mos Def on “Joy”.

Over the next couple years Kweli continued his mainstream success with 2004’s The Beautiful Struggle, a high-profile guest appearance on Kanye West’s The College Dropout, being shouted-out on Jay-Z’s The Black Album, and being featured in the concert/documentary film Dave Chappelle’s Block Party.  Kweli continued to be one of my favourite emcees throughout high school, as he wasn’t putting out much music during this period, but I enjoyed everything I heard and I was using this time to dig back into his older classics.  The Beautiful Struggle came out as I was beginning high school, and by the time I was receiving my diploma, Eardrum came out.

The Beautiful Struggle, while good, wasn’t as memorable as most of his other work (hilarious video though), but Eardrum is one of my favourite Talib Kweli albums.  Eardrum is probably Kweli’s most diverse album, with production by Hi-Tek, Madlib, Kanye West, Will.I.Am, Just Blaze, Pete Rock, DJ Khalil, and guest appearances from Jean Grae, KRS-One, UGK, Norah Jones, Justin Timberlake and DJ Jazzy Jeff to name a few.  Everything was stepped up a notch with this album; the production, sequencing, and mood swings were all executed better than usual.

Around 2009 Talib Kweli hooked up with Hi-Tek again to work on a second Reflection Eternal album.  They went on tour together and I actually saw them perform at the first rap concert I ever went to: the 2009 Rock The Bells festival in Los Angeles (San Bernardino to be exact).  In 2010 they released the album Revolutions Per Minute and I’d say it’s right on par with Train of Thought.  Hi-Tek’s production has evolved with the times and Talib Kweli’s rapping has gotten more precise with a sharper delivery.  This album was also one of the first times I heard J. Cole rap.

At this point Talib Kweli sped up his production, putting out another solo album not even a year after Revolutions Per Minute.  2011 saw the release of Gutter Rainbows, and that year I also saw Kweli perform with Mos Def at the Rock The Bells festival in New York, where they performed their entire Blackstar album among other classic songs.  By now we all knew what Kweli could bring to the table, and he just kept executing and keeping his fans happy.  Gutter Rainbows gave us more of what we already like about Kweli’s music and felt like business as usual, although I think he spit some of his most aggressive raps on his collaborations with Sean Price and Jean Grae on here.

Kweli continued his output with a mixtape called Attack The Block in 2012, and two full length albums in 2013.  The first of those 2013 albums, Prisoner of Conscious, came in at #22 on my Top 30 Albums of the Year Countdown.  Other than what I wrote in that entry in the countdown, I’ll just say that Kweli delivered as usual, and his position as a hip-hop legend has enabled him to get into some unique collaborations.  The second of his 2013 albums is the reason why we’re here: Gravitas.  Let’s get into it.

Right off the bat, this is an album for the fans only.  It’s sold directly from Talib Kweli himself with no middlemen or labels, meaning there’s no need to conform to radio or club standards, and he even provides special insight behind how each song was made within the digital booklet that comes with the download (respects for the Toronto love)!  In addition to how the actual songs came together, he wrote about things like meeting Raekwon for the first time and his first Wu-Tang experience, discovering the UnderAchievers while DJing at a restaurant in New York, and performing with Rich Kidd at the Unity Festival in Toronto (which I attended).  As fans, we don’t always get this level of insight from our favourite artists, which shows that this album is truly a gift for our continued support.

As for the music itself, it’s more of what we already expect from Talib with a few new things.  He has his usual songs about and for the ladies, some fun braggadocios rap, and a standout single (“The Wormhole“) about how ridiculous conspiracy theories can get.   The guest features, both new and old collaborators, all add to the album too.  While Black Thought and RES have worked with Talib in more recent years, it was good to see another Rah Digga collaboration, I think their first since Train of Thought.  Big K.R.I.T. also did his thing, and Raekwon had the best guest verse I’ve heard from him in a long time.  With Talib consistently showcasing his master of flows, the main differentiator between his albums is what he’s actually rapping about.  I already mentioned “The Wormhole”, but he also raps about how rappers lose female fans by being as misogynistic as their music, his personal flaws, and he documents his journey as a rapper from the beginning of his career until now.

Overall, this is another strong addition to Talib Kweli’s already great discography.  It may be the shortest album in his collection (with just 11 songs), but it’s still a quality listen.  He did a good job picking out his beats, choosing production from Statik Selektah, Oh No, Rich Kidd and the late J Dilla among others, and his overall execution to write and deliver these rhymes is as good as ever.  Gravitas will definitely be enjoyed by Talib’s current fan base, but may also be a good place to introduce new listeners to Talib Kweli.

My Joint (this is gonna be HYPE if/when he incorporates it into his live show):

My Grades (based on how well I connected with them, no disrespect if your experience was different):

Mos Def & Talib Kweli are BlackStar (by Blackstar, 1998): A+
Train of Thought (by Reflection Eternal, 2000): A-
Quality (2002): A-
The Beautiful Struggle (2004): B-
Eardrum (2007): A-
Revolutions Per Minute (by Reflection Eternal, 2010): A-
Gutter Rainbows (2011): B-
Prisoner of Conscious (2013): B
Gravitas (2013): B+

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