Chicago Sun-Times
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Talib Kweli: Coming on strong

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Just don't call it a comeback, please

Since he first made a major impact on the hip-hop scene in 1998, rapping beside Mos Def in the duo Black Star, Brooklyn MC Talib Kweli has been known as “a rapper’s rapper,” universally praised for his rapid-fire delivery and complex, socially conscious rhymes. “If skills sold, truth be told/I’d probably be, lyrically, Talib Kweli,” none other than Jay-Z, the bestselling rapper of all time, rhymed on “The Black Album.”

But it wasn’t until last year’s “Ear Drum,” his third bona fide solo album, that Kweli finally scored a Top 10 hit of his own. “Yeah, they say I’m back, but I ain’t go nowhere though!” the 32-year-old artist rapped. “Been here the whole time/Where you been? You back!/Matter fact, apologize!”

The roster of guests on “Ear Drum” is ample testament to the wide range of artists who’ve acknowledged Kweli’s talents, with producers including Chicagoan Kanye West and the Black Eyed Peas’, musical guests Norah Jones and Justin Timberlake and much-buzzed underground heroes Madlib and Jean Grae. But Kweli says he didn’t set out to expand his audience by recruiting stars or crafting a more accessible sound.

“Going into the studio is always about the actual songs for me. I just wrote these songs over the period of about a year, but I also had a lot of other things going on. We put out a bunch of mix tapes, so I was constantly recording stuff. The album wound up being the songs I was most excited about.”

As in the past, “Ear Drum” has its share of politics and positivity. “More rap songs that stress a purpose/Less misogyny and less curses,” Kweli promises on “More or Less,” while on “Say Something,” he also vows to “speak to the people like Barack Obama.” (“From the moment he stepped on the national platform, he’s had a better shot than any black man before him at the nomination, but he’s also running a very impressive campaign,” Kweli says of the Illinois senator and presidential candidate.)

Yet this son of college professors and one-time owner of an Afrocentric bookstore is hardly a humorless preacher: Witness Kweli’s lighthearted take on the Dirty South sound in “Country Cousins,” or his back and forth with West on “In the Mood,” which praise the merits of “real women” like Tooty from “The Facts of Life” over an unforgettably catchy melody from jazz vibraphone player Roy Ayers.

In fact, Kweli says that one of his goals with “Eardrum” was to challenge people’s preconceptions about his subject matter as well as his sound, especially when it comes to the way he uses music.

“You know, musically, I’ve worked with some of the best in the business, from Madlib to Kanye, and from Pharell [Williams] to Just Blaze. But the lyrics end up being the focus of what I do. A lot of people talk about the lyrics and they either forget or never notice the musical choices. But I think that the reason why they hear the lyrics are because of the musical choices. There are a lot of dope rappers and a lot of people who have intelligent lyrics, but not all of them sound good. So I wanted to concentrate on crafting an album that shows people exactly what I do with music -- to make something really musical, but which still had the content.”

As the father of two, the former Talib Greene has made it clear that he hopes to have a long career as a rapper. “I want to have a career and feed my family forever,” he’s said. But he isn’t overly concerned about the chaos the digital revolution is wreaking upon the recording industry.

“My last two studio albums have been available on the internet months before they came out, and in the case of ‘Eardrum,’ it probably helped. Music at this point is free, like grabbing a firefly out of the sky. So where is my money to be made? Is it from branding myself, marketing and promoting myself? Like Cee-Lo [Green] said a few records ago, it’s about selling soul. Selling music has been secondary for a long time.”

To this end, Kweli says he values live performance now more than ever, and after his current tour in support of “Ear Drum,” he’s planning to follow in Cee-Lo’s footsteps with a genre-blurring band in the mode of Gnarls Barkley, sharing vocal duties with R&B singer Res. This group, Idle Warship, will be “more upbeat club music.” But Kweli doesn’t plan on abandoning more socially conscious music any time soon.

“It’s easy for a progressive audience to think that at the root of their problems with music is some sort of conspiracy: The industry doesn’t want me to sell ’cause I’m conscious,” he told the Toronto Star. “But I don’t think it’s as simple as that. You have to create the sort of situation you want for yourself.”

Talib Kweli
House of Blues, 329 N. Dearborn
9 p.m. Saturday (with Bo and Logik; sold-out)
9 p.m. Sunday (with Pugsly Adams and the Bridge)
Tickets $21.50 in advance; $23 at the door
(312) 923-2000

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Hi, my name is Cory Hall, and I have been a supporter and avid buyer of the Chicago Sun Times for many years. I have also read many of your articles, especially involving the entertainment/music scene. But in your January 18th article on Talib Kweli (who is an excellent, yet underrated MC), I noticed a mistake of sorts in your opening paragraph. You quoted Jay-Z as being "the greatest selling rapper of all time", and according to my information that is incorrect. As his number 1 fan, I firmly believe that that title belongs to the late, great Tupac (2Pac) Shakur. has their tally listed as the following (in terms of record sales):

Tupac Amaru Shakur (June 16, 1971 – September 13, 1996), also known by his stage names 2Pac, Makaveli, or simply Pac, was an American rapper. In addition to his status as a top-selling recording artist, Shakur was a successful film actor and a prominent social activist. He is recognized in the Guinness Book of World Records as the highest-selling rap artist, with over 75,000,000 albums sold worldwide, including over 50,000,000 in the United States alone.

This is the discography of Tupac Shakur, an American rapper. He is the world's best-selling rapper, with over 75 million albums sold.[1] There have been twelve studio albums released; six were completed before Shakur's death in 1996 and six were posthumously created.


Thanks, as a life-long devotee to rap music and the hip-hop culture as a whole, I just wanted to make this slight error was somehow understood, if not corrected.

Cory Hall

In the words of Jay-Z himself "Men lie, women lie, numbers don't".

Cory: You're absolutely right; my bad!

'Pac remains the bestselling rapper of all time. But even before the release of his last album late last year, Jay-Z had scored a major sales and chart distinction of his own, to wit (from his publicists, but verified by the RIAA):

Sorry about the confusion!

Talib Kweli is the real deal. I'm a 41 year old professional black male, I make 6 figures annually & I love rap! Only certain artist...of course. Talib is my very favorite; even moreso than common & I'm from Chicago; although I currently live in Northern California. Truth be told; I've raised my son on Talib's music. His lyrics, selected dj's, production & selectivity of co-artist set him apart from all others. He gets it! In my mind he is what rap music is all about. Strong Arm Steady; his instrumental crew that provides the live music on the most of his tracks that aren't dj'd are off the chain. To quote SAS "don't think we changed up our style; we've just added more changes to our style". Good article!

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