Talib Kweli is a man at a crossroads. It’s been nearly a decade since Mos Def and Talib Kweli Are Black Star issued a sharp rebuke to hip-hop’s materialism and glorification of violence; in the years since, Kweli has struggled to find mainstream appeal while hip-hop has become dominated by a new generation of hustler-MCs. When all the critics’ favorite rappers talk about slinging rock, what’s a crossover-minded conscious MC to do?
More of the same, mostly. The new Ear Drum finds Kweli doing his best work when he’s playing it safe, which is to say, when he’s lacing soul-inflected beats with impassioned social commentary and character studies. The album’s most successful moments take advantage of an expansive roster of producers and guests: vibes legend Roy Ayers adds some color to a great Kanye track on ‘In the Mood’ and Norah Jones fits right into Madlib’s mellow production on ‘Soon the New Day’. Pete Rock’s ‘Electrify’ and the single ‘Listen!!!’ likewise find Kweli firing on all cylinders.
Kweli’s attempts to step outside his comfort zone, however, are unlikely to please either mainstream listeners or his established fanbase. The misguided UGK collaboration ‘Country Cousins’ reflects poorly on all involved, and Kweli sounds forced and awkward rapping over will.i.am’s contributions. Misfires like these make an already overlong album seem nearly interminable.
Of course, Kweli has always been something of an acquired taste. Intricate as his rhymes may be, his flow doesn’t have the fluid grace of peers like Mos Def or Common, nor has he ever learned to leaven his earnest commentaries with any of the playfulness and humor of Native Tongues predecessors like De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest.
Ear Drum may mark a modest success for Kweli — it’s certainly a step up from The Beautiful Struggle — but it doesn’t exactly bode well for the future. It’s good to see Kweli playing to his strengths, since his gestures towards the mainstream (with the exception of ‘Get By’) have been abortive at best, but it’s also frustrating to watch a talented MC paint himself into a corner. Nobody looks forward to a long career of preaching to the choir.