The C-Word

Rapper's ambivalence about fame and fortune hits a peak

There are things to love about Talib Kweli, if you're so inclined. Someone needs to be out there, fists up, feet on the streets, nose in the newspaper, scouring for mentions of Mother Africa so he can name-drop Sierra Leone on his tracks. The man has dignity, even if he offers few surprises.

But with slight linguistic variation, the exhausted C-word (conscious) might serve as a cautionary criterion for Kweli. The Beautiful Struggle, his sophomore solo effort, is cumbersome when it seems self-conscious, and works well when it seems effortless, when Talib ceases overcompensating with overproduction, diva guest spots, or repetitive political invective. Instead of spontaneity, we get a dogged effort to show us he's arrived.

Unfortunately for Kweli, history has shown that he's only able to get out from under the weight of himself when there's someone else around to force him to do so. Mourning the heady days of Black Star with Mos Def (1998) and, to a lesser extent, Reflection Eternalwith Hi-Tek (2000) is futile. But they do prove that he does spotlight-sharing well, and that, despite the obligatory ghetto braggadocio, humility becomes him. The reward, even if it's a consolation prize, is that one could spend a lifetime trying to replicate the flawless balance of count-along exuberance and lyrical agility of Black Star's "Definition," or even Reflection Eternal's "Move Something."

The Beautiful Struggle offers some misty-eyed Afrodisiacs to daughter and shorty alike, some flinty remember-the-neighborhood hymns (the unforgivably sappy "Around My Way," which sucks the life out of a Police sample), and a dash of "I ain't a player anymore" for the ladies. Kweli's ambivalence about fame and commerce—turning up his nose at them, yet bitter over their rebuff—hits a peak on this album. In the lurching, measured "Back Up Offa Me," he snarls at the "radio suckas who won't play me," in any sense of the phrase.

Making hip-hop feel better about itself can get arduous, especially when it's all the other boys who are getting rich. In "The Ghetto Show," signaled as another nostalgia track by its sentimental neo-soul overtones and Common guest spot, Kweli inverts the Jay-Z "Moment of Clarity" shout-out that put him on the mainstream map last year, and doesn't sound as pleased as he might. "If lyrics sold, truth be told/I'd probably be just as rich and famous as Jay-Z." (Because Jay-Z did it, he thinks it's OK to rhyme "common sense" with, um, "common sense.")

The songs are willfully, even forcefully, symmetrical, refusing digression. The Neptunes, Hi-Tek, and Kanye West phone in increasingly composite beats that, at least here, seem to be inversely proportional to Kweli's powers of flow. And the lukewarm first single "I Try," with Mary J. Blige, is a poor choice for a flagship track. But there are salvageable moments, namely those when anger melds with beats in a less forced, more seamless fashion, as it does in the opener "Going Hard," or the less overreaching "A Game." Talib even allows himself some humor, as when he sagely warns about groupies: "When they're throwing pussy best believe you catching something."

Is it a dirty secret that despite the BK avenue shout-outs, his parents are both college professors? Maybe, under it all, that accounts for Kweli's status as lingua franca between the street and the beat bourgeoisie. He might even be wishing he followed in his folks' footsteps: Eggheads in the academy don't have to deal with the world workshopping their rough draft, as Kweli did when early versions were leaked and eventually codified as The Beautiful Mixtape.

But then he'd have to dispense with street tropes in favor of jargon, and he couldn't very well pepper his papers with the kinds of double entendres that sharpen the competitive bluster of "Going Hard," e.g., "Fuck the harder way, we doing it the smarter way." When swagger and righteousness don't veer off into postures of toughness or, forgive me, self-righteousness, listening to him no longer feels like doing a good deed.

 
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