Brooklyn rapper Talib Kweli and John Kerry have a lot in common. Both men were once considered the lesser of two evils, and despite having seemingly earnest agendas, both have a tendency to come off like complete and utter bores. At least the eloquent if rhythmically challenged Talib wasn’t always so wearisome. In the late ’90s, the soft-spoken scribe, paired with rapper turned actor Mos Def in the short-lived Black Star, had a style that seemed artful, anxious, and urgent as a prayer. But on 2004’s lackluster solo disc The Beautiful Struggle, passionate prose gave way to an auditory baby-kissing campaign—in trying to please both backpackers and mainstream listeners, Talib was flip-flopping all over the damn place. (If stellar beats and rhymes are initiatives, then Talib voted for them before he voted against them.) Furthermore, his once- endearing, arhythmic brand of shy, boyish bleating suddenly sounded awkward, leaving his fans wondering: Was Talib ever really that nice in the first place, or was rap near the dawn of the millennium that fucking wack?
Nothing like a dispossessed fan base to light a proverbial fire under that ass.
Ear Drum marks the self-proclaimed BK MC’s third full-length feature, and astoundingly, it’s a captivating, cocksure rejoinder to everyone who abandoned him. “They say I’m back, but I ain’t go nowhere though!” he declares on the blistering, will.i.am-produced “Say Something.” The claim, of course, is outrageous, but it’s cool to hear that kind of confidence, because Talib now raps like he believes it. On songs like the breezy, UGK-assisted “Country Cousins,” the lifelong New Yorker sports a Southern-tinged flow and doesn’t sound the least bit out of place, while the dub-inflected “The Perfect Beat” finds him dauntlessly trading barbs with the legendary KRS-One. And while cuts like the salacious, Kanye West–produced “In the Mood” might seem rather unbecoming of a so-called conscious MC, the vibe here never feels disingenuous or affected. On the contrary, he’s never sounded this ardent and sincere. Witness the sweeping opener “Everything Man,” wherein Talib, over a lush guitar, spits lines like: “I try to fit it in the same rhyme/But realize I can’t be everything to everyone at the same time.” John Kerry never figured that out.