Talib Kweli: Ear Drum

Sometimes is seems like Talib Kweli doesn’t have the career he really wanted. Hip-Hop fans tend to prefer their artists to find a category and stick with it, so whether an MC is introduced to the game as a thug, playboy, intellectual or whatever else, the audience has a certain expectation that he plays that role for the rest of his career. We first met Kweli in the late 90’s when he and Mos Def were hailed by many as the saviors of “real Hip-Hop.” While Kweli usually seems willing to carry that torch, with each release he seems to drift a little closer towards the mainstream, almost as if he’s trying to see what he can get away with before his fans mutiny. Taken as individual tracks, most of Ear Drum (BlackSmith/Warner Bros) works fairly well. “Say Something” finds Kweli flexing his battle rap muscle over a dynamic will.i.am beat, and while the Kwame produced “Listen!!!” has been making rounds for some time now, it still stands out as one of Ear Drum’s best. Kweli’s phenomenal collaboration with Kanye West, the silky “In the Mood,” features verses from each MC that play perfectly to their strengths (Kweli’s precise lyricism and Kanye’s wit) over a truly hypnotic backdrop. Madlib and Norah Jones join Talib for “Soon the New Day” and while Jones’s inclusion might seem like an attempt to reach for crossover appeal, the pairing is completely natural and again, plays perfectly to the strengths of the rapper, singer and producer.On the other hand, “The Nature” (produced by and featuring Justin Timberlake) doesn’t work quite as well. Neither artist seems to have his heart in it, resulting in what’s basically a retread of “Where is the Love” from The Black Eyed Peas. “Country Cousins” with UGK was another iffy choice; Kweli’s bouncy flow sounds forced, and the team-up doesn’t work nearly as well as it did on Underground Kingz. The album comes in too long with 20 tracks and these would have been better off left behind, leaving a leaner, punchier product.Whatever it is that Kweli is “supposed to be,” he’s once again turned in a quality, though at time unfocused LP. He’s aware of the predicament he’s in when he kicks, “Yeah yeah I’m standing right here/I get you hot but stay cooler than the night air/I try to fit in the same rhyme but realize I can’t be everything to everyone at the same time,” on the solemn but appealing “Everything Man.” Had the weakest half-dozen been omitted, the remains may have added up to a near classic, so flawed or not, Ear Drum still delivers enough solid work to be worth checking out no matter what your expectations.SOUNDCHECK:Talib Kweli "Everything Man"Talib Kweli "Eat To Live"