Talib Kweli - Biography

Despite the onslaught of criticism hip-hop receives for its supposed glorification of violence, sex, and drugs, the late ’90s saw a wave of socially conscious hip-hop artists who sought to use the genre as a way to enlighten and create community, bringing the genre back to its original focus of the ‘80s. Talib Kweli’s nimble wordplay is certainly more interested with spreading Afro-centric messages than self-infatuation and debauchery. Along with other soulful rappers such as Mos Def and Common, Talib Kweli helped to spearhead a movement that brought hip-hop back to its communal roots.

The son of two college professors, Talib Kweli Green was born in Brooklyn, New York. While in high school, he was drawn to hip-hop artists like De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, and Brand Nubian who were shedding light on socially relevant topics. Between his studies, Kweli began to dabble with his own rapping and finally decided to pursue hip-hop full time. He linked up with a rap group from Cincinnati called Mood and appears on five tracks from their album, Doom (TVT), released in 1997. Through this collaboration, Kweli met Cincinnati producer DJ Hi-Tek who produced several tracks on the album. The musical marriage between Kweli and DJ Hi-Tek would eventually become one of underground hip-hop’s most celebrated rapper/producer combinations.

Kweli returned to New York with Hi-Tek in tow, hoping to begin work on his own solo LP. Before he got around to that, Kweli partnered with fellow Brooklyn rapper Mos Def and the two worked collectively as Black Star. Like Kweli, Mos Def’s lyrics were full of references to black leaders and rally cries for social justice. Supplemented by DJ Hi-Tek’s and several other fledgling producer’s meticulous soul sample-powered beats, 1998’s Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star (Rawkus) is an immensely progressive and forward-thinking hip-hop opus. From the pleas on the track “Definition” to end hip-hop’s plague of violence to Jazz-great Weldon Irvine’s smooth piano strokes on “Astronomy,” Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star was a critical success and saw hip-hop consumers not only nod their head to the beat but also perk up their ears and listen to the message.

While often collaborating, Kweli and Mos Def also ventured off into separate endeavors. Mos Def went on to release the immensely successful Black on Both Sides (1999 Rawkus), which has stood the test of time and remains one of hip-hop’s most influential albums. Kweli and DJ Hi-Tek continued to work together, calling themselves Reflection Eternal. With a newly revitalized underground hip-hop era in full swing, Reflection Eternal released Train of Thought (Rawkus) in 2000. From a critical standpoint, the album was highly lauded for its consistent and progressive vision. Over Hi-Tek’s soul-heavy productions, the Kweli fulminates hip-hop’s obsession with materialism and wealth, touting a strong pro-black message loud and clear. Kweli’s clear cut flow also gives a nod to the pioneers of hip-hop as well as acknowledgment to the roots of the culture itself. The album also features emerging comedian Dave Chappelle doing humorous skits between several songs. While singles like “Move Somethin’” and “The Blast” attained a degree of ubiquity, the commercial sales for Train of Thought were somewhat slim. Nonetheless, the album helped Kweli acquire a well-deserved reputation as one of hip-hop’s most fearless innovators.

While Kweli’s extensive touring made him popular among hip-hop fans, his positive message and versatility allowed him to defy musical boundaries. Kweli’s first solo album, 2002’s Quality (Rawkus), found him easing into a more mainstream sound, perhaps in an attempt to expand his fan base even further. While a hefty chunk of his past work had been set over dusty soul sampling, Quality recruits more mainstream producers such as Kanye West, DJ Scratch, and DJ Quik. Kweli doesn’t abandon the progressive ideologies that he built his career on, but the album certainly has a more aggressive feel, as can be heard on tracks like “Gun Music” and “Rush.” The lead single “Get By” (probably Kweli's most iconic single) is a melodic anthem dedicated to those struggling within the economy. Quality reached Gold-status and, despite its infiltration into hip-hop’s mainstream, Kweli remained one of the genre’s true visionaries — even in the eyes of fickle hip-hop purists.

Talib Kweli’s mainstream visibility continued to grow as he appeared several times on Dave Chappelle’s eponymous Chappelle’s Show, which was immensely popular during its short run. Kweli also continued to tour and collaborated several times with producer/rapper Kanye West, who was steadily becoming a hip-hop icon. Kweli appeared on West’s acclaimed 2004 debut album The College Dropout (Roc-A-Fella) on the track “Get ‘Em High,” alongside Common. whether deliberate or not, Kweli’s appearance on West’s debut was symbolically significant as the album was praised for its nearly perfect balance between the ideologies of mainstream and underground hip-hop. Content-wise, Kweli was certainly closer to the ethos of the latter, but at this juncture in his career he was delicately walking the line between the two sides. His music was finding attention from the masses and mainstream outlets like MTV but also contained a consistent and bold strain of social consciousness.

Kweli’s next solo album came later in 2004 and is named The Beautiful Struggle (Rawkus) in reference to a Martin Luther King speech. Kweli was finding it difficult to maintain the equilibrium between mainstream and underground music that he has so efficiently engineered thus far in his career. With even more commercially viable production from hit-makers like The Neptunes, Kanye West, and Just Blaze and mainstream guests like Mary J. Blige and Faith Evans, Kweli’s second solo-venture didn’t convince critics that his loyalties remained with the socially-aware causes he had always championed. Oddly enough, The Beautiful Struggle failed to truly reach mainstream sales status.

Sometimes considered an album and sometimes considered a mixtape, 2005’s Right About Now: The Official Sucka Free Mix CD (Koch) is regarded as Kweli’s retort to the negative critical feedback his previous album garnered. For the project, Kweli took a step back from the commercially recognizable artists he’d been dabbling with and replaced them with underground heavyweights such as 88-Keys and DJ Khalil. Joining Kweli were other underground MCs such as the enigmatic MF Doom, Planet Asia, and Phil Da Agony. Also noteworthy is the track “Supreme Supreme,” which features Mos Def and is their first collaboration since Quality. In 2007, hip-hop producer Madlib and Kweli collaborated on the nine-track Liberation  (Blacksmith), which was initially released for free on the internet. Many consider Liberation a return to form for Kweli.

In a move that appeared risky, Kweli again tried to carefully balance his fondness for avant-garde hip-hop with commercially lucrative elements for 2007’s Eardrum (Warner/Blacksmith Music) — a joint venture between Warner Brothers Records and Kweli’s own Blacksmith Music label. While the album contained appearances from superstar crooners Justin Timberlake and Norah Jones, Kweli also utilized a lengthy list of underground audio architects such as Battlecat, DJ Jazzy Jeff, Pete Rock, and Hi-Tek. It’s probably fair to say that critics did not want to enjoy Eardrum, yet the album received remarkably good reviews and even debuted at number two on the Billboard 200 chart, making it Kweli’s best-selling album.    

Even as Talib Kweli’s popularity has risen, his goal of spreading intelligent and socially aware messages has remained sturdy. Never concerned with gold chains, scantily-clad women, or stacks of cash, Talib Kweli has cemented himself as one of hip-hop’s most intellectually solid artists.

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