In 2002, after a 1998 release with fellow Brooklyn rapper Mos Def as Blackstar and one with producer Hi-Tek as Reflection Eternal in 2000, Talib Kweli dropped his first album on his own two called Quality. Released on Rawkus, it is an album that has clearly lived up to its name. With this fall marking the 10-year anniversary of its release, AllHipHop.com recognizes its greatness and how the set made Hip-Hop better than it was before:
From the moment Dave Chappelle began speaking on the album’s introduction, “Keynote Speaker,” it was clear that Quality is something special. When Talib is introduced as “the man that made Kool-Aid say, ‘Oh, yeah,’” it is impossible for the record to not have listeners’ undivided attention.
Quality’s first song,“Rush,” is one of Kweli’s most energetic works to date, where he puts the competition in its place. “Joy,” with a guest appearance from Mos Def, has Talib discussing the birth of his two children without sounding pretentious. And “The Proud” finds Talib confronting social and political issues of the time head on with lyrics such as, “The President is Bush, the Vice President’s a Dick/So a whole lot of f*ckin’ is what we gon’ get.” But for as masterfully as the rhymes are written and delivered, bragging about rap abilities, positivity, and message music is nothing new to conscious Hip-Hop. What makes Quality stand out from the pack is its willingness to explore things that were previously ignored by conscious rappers.
“Waitin’ for the DJ,” with its soulful groove and assistance from Bilal, is a great dance song that challenges the idea of a modern club hit by remaining catchy without compromising respectable rhymes and rhythms for rowdiness. Another highlight is “Guerilla Monsoon Rap.” It is among the best posse cuts in Hip-Hop. Black Thought, Pharoahe Monch, and Kanye West all join Talib on a record that line-for-line could stand alongside rap’s greatest songs. In hindsight, “Guerilla Monsoon Rap” is to conscious Hip-Hop what “Flava in Ya Ear (Remix)” is to rap’s pop dominance in the '90s, and what “The Symphony” is to the Golden Era during the '80s.
In terms of production, the album wisely does not limit itself to conscious beats either. From the guitar riffs on Megahertz’s “Gun Music” to the piano and claps of Kanye West’s “Get By” to the Left Coast vibe of the DJ Quik produced “Put It in the Air,” the album is 15 tracks of diverse instrumentals which helps the project reach people with an assortment of sounds. That's one of the reasons the album holds up as well as it does. Not since The Pharcyde’s 1992 masterpiece Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde has conscious rap made such good use of so much different music.
The influence of Quality can be heard in other outstanding rap albums that followed. For example, Kanye West’s debut, College Dropout, is a collection of over 20 tracks. None of them sound the same. One can’t help but think that the rapper and producer saw the value of variety in Quality’s approach and wanted to follow the trail that it blazed. Mos Def’s The New Danger and its rock and jazz influence? Quality did it first. Lyrically, Lupe Fiasco’s balance of his ode to skateboarding (“Kick, Push”) and heavy content regarding racism and violence (“American Terrorist”) on Food and Liquor had a precursor in Quality and its well-rounded lyrical themes. And the list goes on.
Talib’s solo debut can also be traced back to other Hip-Hop acts as well such as A Tribe Called Quest, the aforementioned group The Pharcyde, and De La Soul. However, those acts were all in their prime in the early to mid-'90s. What Quality did was bring those influences into the 21st century and apply them to the current day and age. The results were something that had not been heard before.
Rated by his peers and fans as one of Hip-Hop’s most gifted MCs, Kweli and his Quality proved he could succeed by himself. The album provided a blueprint for articulate and intelligent MCs of today to follow. And it also demonstrated that conscious rap did not have to limit itself to minimalist beats in order to accentuate its rhymes.
Quality is a well-rounded, time-tested classic that is not going anywhere soon. Put simply, it exemplifies how powerful great music can be and that is a beautiful thing.