Talib Kweli                                                     By Colin Aurelien

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Backstage at the Beastie Boys’ concert at Wembley Arena, The Situation talks to one of Brooklyn’s finest, Talib Kweli, about his latest album ‘The Beautiful Struggle’, and the state of hip-hop journalism.

Think of Brooklyn rappers, and the initial train of thought is to mention Big Daddy Kane, Notorious B.I.G. and Jay-Z. But there’s another emcee from the BK that’s been putting it down the last few years. Talib Kweli, unquestionably one of Brooklyn’s finest, has released three previous albums, (‘Reflection Eternal’, ‘Black Star’ and ‘Quality’), and is back with ‘The Beautiful Struggle’, the follow up to his 2002 solo debut album ‘Quality’.

‘The Beautiful Struggle’ is Talib’s first album release, post the Jay-Z track ‘Moment of Clarity’ where Jay spits, “If skills be told I’d probably be lyrically Talib Kweli.” To date, Talib has had a varied level of commercial success, most notably with the Kanye West-produced track ‘Get By’, from his debut album. The combination of previous album record sales and the endorsement from Jay-Z has made ‘The Beautiful Struggle’ his most eagerly anticipated album, if not most pressured. “I really look up to Jay-Z as an artist, and for me to even radar on a song like that, which is a personal song where he’s talking about his career, talking about his father. Yeah, sure there is a little bit of pressure but it wasn’t a bad pressure, it was a good pressure.”

Although Talib may not to date have the record sales of a Jay-Z, he is equally as important to the hip-hop scene both as an artist and as a visible role model within his community. He plays a key role in increasing the self-love and self-esteem of his local community of Brooklyn through co-founding The Nkiru Centre for Education & Culture. The Nkiru Centre for Education & Culture provides an outlet for improving literacy through seminars, workshops, lectures and book clubs. This however, was a far cry from the Nkiru Centre prior to the intervention of Talib and Mos Def in 1998. The then Nkiru Bookstore, the first black bookstore in Brooklyn, was at one point dedicated to providing the only port of call for black literature. Luckily, when it was on the verge closure, Talib and Mos stepped in to save the day, which would otherwise have been a major loss to the community.

As an artist, Talib is one of the very few who choose not to glamorise crime and violence through his music. Instead he has chosen to be a Trojan horse within hip-hop and highlight the struggle and living conditions of black people. “Most of my music’s about self-esteem, self value, self love; that’s the themes you will find reoccurring in my music. All I can do is show the example and God willing, somebody will look at my example which has happened in the past and be like, there is a way where you can talk about something positive and be entertaining.”

Starved of the commercial success his peers, including Jay-Z and 50 Cent, believe his music warrants, Talib is himself aware of his standing both as a commercially viable artist and at his record label. “I wish I could write a “sing-songy” hook so people can pay attention to my sh*t, but I’m no good at that sh*t.” This has failed to stop critics of the album from claiming that this work is his most commercially driven album to date. Many critics have pointed to the inclusion of producers The Neptunes (Nelly, ‘Hot In Herre’), and Just Blaze (Joe Budden, ‘Pump It Up’), who are known hit makers, as Talib’s desperation for greater commercial success. “They don’t realise just because someone doesn’t make a hit doesn’t mean their music ain’t good. Anyone who makes a statement like that is making assumptions on who they think I am,” he said. “They think I might like a certain type of music or they have a certain type of perception of me and they can’t fathom the idea that I might just be a fan of The Neptunes, or I might think Just Blaze is dope; I got to be doing it for commercial success. Nah, I think the n*gga’s dope.”

For many, Talib’s music is synonymous with Hi-Tek produced tracks, whether in his days as part of the group Black Star, or on the ‘Reflection Eternal’ album, which was a Talib/Hi-Tek joint venture. If given the choice, Talib himself may have preferred ‘The Beautiful Struggle’ to have a higher percentage of tracks produced by Hi-Tek (D12, ‘Just Like You’). “I got three, that’s a start. Sure, if I had more Hi-Tek produced tracks I would probably make a ‘Reflection Eternal’ album,” he rationalised. The reason for a larger selection of producers this time around seems to lay more with Hi-Tek’s growing stature as a highly sort after producer, rather than his appreciation of The Neptunes or Just Blaze’s music. Fans of Talib, who may be disappointed at the very few tracks produced by Hi-Tek, can look forward to a new Black Star album, after Talib confirmed the album is in the pipeline.

Talib On Hip-Hop Journalism

After Eminem gave us his version of events in relation to his ongoing beef with Ray Benzino (co-owner of hip-hop publication The Source) on the track ‘Like Toy Soliders’, The Situation couldn’t let the opportunity pass by without asking Talib his opinion on the current state of hip-hop journalism.
“I think The Source is one of the worst examples of journalism I’ve ever seen, and I have no personal beef with Benzino and Dave Mays (co-owners of The Source). They’ve shown me a lot of love, but the fact that they use that magazine for their personal beefs I think is kind of stupid; I think it hurts the credibility of hip-hop journalism.” He continued, “When I see the four-page adds in The Source for the ‘Made Men’, that’s when it’s a little iffy for me. They cross the line with that but it’s his money, his magazine he can do what he wants to do.”

Many observers who believe publications such as The Source have the power to make or break both established and up-and-coming artist careers, would have advised Talib to refrain from making public his feelings on The Source. However, Talib doesn’t hold hip-hop publications in such high reverence. “People don’t buy records based on what a magazine writer says; people couldn’t care less, people make their own decisions. So I read it for fun and I read it to pay attention to what’s going on in the culture, but other than that, I don’t take it too seriously. I don’t support it but I don’t denounce it either, I just acknowledge it for what it is. They’re doing their job, I’ve gotta do mine.”

Talib is the constant breath of fresh air in an industry where people are often caught up in their own self-importance. While some artists will try to sell a pair of sneakers, Talib is trying to sell his people hope, whether through his music or The Nkiru Centre for Education & Culture.

'Talib Kweli's 'The Beautiful Struggle' out now.

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