Thursday, January 19, 2017

One Last Pick Thru the Bins, Vol. 11: Talib Kweli, or Right About When Things Get Tricky

Taste is, like, half the point. At most.

To post this series’ first existential question: how much time should I spend on a band/performer that I don’t like so much?

I came to Talib Kweli’s solo work because I heard (and loved) Black Star, his collaboration with Mos Def. I picked up a couple other signals (this piece of brilliance is the only one that comes to mind now, and, see below, but I’m pretty sure out of timeline) and, with that, Talib Kweli’s name possessed a couple positive associations.

I picked up Talib Kweli’s Beautiful Struggle 3-4 years ago (yeah, yeah, late bloomer) and, outside of Black Star, that’s probably as far back as I go on anything he touched. Also, had you asked even last week if I dug Talib Kweli’s work, I would have ranked him high. But, as it happens, I wrote in that vote without doing the homework…

Here’s where I get in my head a little, not to monkey around in my psyche, but because I think a lot of people like or dislike one thing or another, but without thinking much about how they separate (alleged) wheat from (alleged) chaff. And those parentheticals are less a copout than to acknowledge the same kind of uncomfortable truth that undermines the whole goddamn wine-tasting empire: on the pop level, it’s all but totally subjective. Seriously. Also, this is a meditation on the difference between what you like (Talib Kweli) and what you love (big list).

Reviewing all this taught what could be a lesson in how a brain edits information – e.g., I like Talib Kweli because Black Star, and because “The Actual” (link above; and, shit, here), and I can recall a couple good songs on Beautiful Struggle, therefore I’m a fan of Talib Kweli.

And there’s another wrinkle: I’m good with Talib Kweli. I like his politics, I believe it’s possible that he brought a key element to Black Star, one whose absence I might feel when (or if) I go deep on Mos Def’s (now, Yasiin Bey) oeuvre, and I think that, across his three solo albums that I explored I found some damn good songs. I also found songs that sound like generic (lazy?) club-bangers to me, plus a bunch that felt similarly flaccid (maybe due to where he fit in my musical universe going in?). But even that slips around the heart of the disconnect.

I believe artists can actually be bad. For instance, I will believe to my dying breath that Hootie & the Blowfish put out music so bland that it can’t actually be heard by the human ear, but only felt like and with the same satisfaction as a bath cooling to lukewarm. With Talib Kweli it’s different, not so much that he put out bad songs, than that I’ve heard songs on similar themes that feel more novel and thoughtful, and with the beats and samples tangoing in time. Or why do I prefer (key distinction) The Coup’s “Wear Clean Draws” to the weightier “Black Girl Pain” (my favorite track on Beautiful Struggle, though, and the source of the fond memories, also, hella cute intro; the other one just....wears lighter), or Kanye West’s “Family Business” to Talib Kweli’s “Friends & Family”? For now, I only know I do. That’s part of why I’m doing this. Wait. Shit, hold on…

…it’s here that I admit to a technical glitch, one borne of the Technology of the Ancients. Because my “Dead Music” files can’t play on my computer, I upload them to my old Sansa Clip. Trouble is, that device will atomize any album into separate, constituent parts the second it sees a “ft.” with anyone’s name but the Main Artist. So, yeah, I’m doing this review…in the context of Talib Kweli’s entire body of work, like 50% blind, with some details missing, some of the perhaps relevant.

But, to go the other way…

There are songs on Beautiful Struggle that recalled club-bangers I hear on radio stations I generally skip over – e.g. “A Game” ( and “Work It Out” (found this one). A big part of me accepts that I just don’t like songs about “da club” and everything that goes on in and around it. And I think that has to do with how often that theme comes up, even as I accept that rock, as a genre, dry-humps its share of muse/corpses. While I can’t say that the album as a whole makes me want to spin it day after day, it has its moment – e.g., and in addition to “Black Girl Pain,” “Never Been In Love” and the title track…and, if you haven’t figured out by now, yes, I am emotionally delicate and I prefer the subtle sanctuary of “emotional complexity” to, “we’re both hot, let’s bone.” But that’s personal taste, not measuring talent.

The two “club-banger” songs I flagged above might only feel weird because they don’t fit my preconceived notion of how Talib Kweli should sound and what he should say. Black Star comes in under the same banner: that album – which fits my tastes better than anything Talib Kweli put out – framed Talib Kweli for me in a way that might have limited him. Still, sound against sound, just about everything on Black Star – whether it’s “Definition,” “Brown Skin Lady” (which starts with one of the best intros in human history; also, "good hair"), “B Boys Will B Boys” (keep up with that one), or the smooth-jazz goodness of the final track, “Thieves in the Night” – so, there’s no “desert island dilemma” between Talib Kweli and the act that (in my world) launched him (allowing for ignorance; just listening to music; not researching beyond chronology). If you wanna get really messy, think about how much is that just appreciating a sound from (closer to) my youth.

Meanwhile, getting back to Kanye…

I swear to god his influence is all over Beautiful Struggle (please, someone confirm this). Both “Going Hard” and “Back Up Offa Me” match my personal (possibly misguided) sense of a Kanye West samples. The guitar feels aggressive/power-chord feels like metal in the way that “power/rage” trumps melody.

That could be why I lean to Talib Kweli’s launch work, Quality, an (gotta be) EP that came out way back in 2002, as my favorite. That one has a couple highlights, whether it’s the prophetic vibe of “The Proud” (kinda crazy, actually; also, tight goddamn rhymes) or the (early) whiffs of gospel in “Get By” or the funk-blues blend of “Good to You.” On certain collections (see, Technology of the Ancients), that’s 3/6, or a 50% strike-rate. And most teams would kill for that, right? And, listening to all these songs as I'm linking to them, the songs I like by this guy, I really like. It's the down-time that gets to me.

To contrast a little against Black Star, I spent some time with the third album I have, Gutter Rainbows (2011). First of all, holy shit, is that a genius title. Sadly, the album doesn’t hold up. The title track hits me all right, but, after that (and, again, this includes only those songs with sole credit to Talib Kweli), I only really connected to “Tater Tot” and “So Low,” even then only because I liked the rhyme structure. I think I’d like “Cold Rain” in isolation – e.g., as a song I heard on a radio, but not this album (playing now, and, yeah, damn good tune)– but isn’t that the problem?

No part of this examination grows from a desire to declare one artist better than another; it’s all preference. So, what am I after? Maybe it’s a John Henry thing, the idea that I can crack my own algorithm before Spotify can. That seems like an OK mission to me. And, for the first time in this project, Talib Kweli opened up my first avenue for doing so…

…and through no real fault of his own. I’ll circle back to all those “ft.” tracks one day. In the meantime, though, I’m very, very busy. Honestly, you have no idea…

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