Talib Kweli is the rapper’s rapper. As Jay Z proclaimed on "Moment of Clarity" from his Black Album: “If skills sold, truth be told/Lyrically, I’d probably be Talib Kweli.” He emerged towards the end of the 1990s alongside his friend and fellow conscious rapper Mos Def — with whom he formed the duo Black Star — and has since won much critical acclaim for his music. And although this has not led to the same mainstream success or financial rewards as those enjoyed by Jay Z, his legacy in hip hop is assured.
Growing Up in Brooklyn
Talib Kweli Greene was born on October 3, 1975, in the New York borough of Brooklyn. His razor-sharp intelligence and questioning approach to the world was nurtured by his parents — his mom was an English professor, his father a university official — and embedded in their choice of name for their eldest son: Talib is Arabic for "seeker" or "student," while Kweli is Swahili for "truth". Thanks to them, he was immersed in African-American political activism from an early age. As a child he showed an aptitude for poetry (a skill that would pay dividends later) and acting. After school, he studied experimental theater at New York University.
When Kweli was 14, he met fellow Brooklynite Dante Smith (Mos Def). The pair bonded over their shared love of the Golden Age hip-hop posse Native Tongues. Kweli’s forays into Afrocentric hip hop became more pronounced during his teenage years. After meeting the producer Hi-Tek on a trip to Cincinnati, Kweli was invited into the studio with Hi-Tek’s group, Mood. Kweli made his rapping bow on their debut album, Doom, in 1997.
'The Manifesto' with Hi-Tek
The chemistry between Kweli and Hi-Tek was obvious. Thus began a fruitful, albeit fractious creative relationship (“I had a lot to learn from Hi-Tek and he had a lot to learn from me; we were teaching each other but it wasn't always pretty, there was conflict,” Kweli told Noisey in 2016). Under the name Reflection Eternal, they released their first single, "Fortified Live," in 1997. It was one of a string of landmark releases Kweli featured on for the Rawkus label.
The following year, Kweli and Hi-Tek’s single "The Manifesto" appeared on Lyricist Lounge, Volume One, the classic Rawkus compilation. A state-of-the-nation address that also contained a 10-point plan for hip hop, "The Manifesto" illustrated Kweli’s brilliant wit and fierce lyrical wordplay — a timely reminder of what hip hop could be in the wake of Tupac's and The Notorious BIG’s murders.
Mainstream Success: 'Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star'
Next up for Kweli was a reunion in September 1998 with Mos Def. Coming together as Black Star, their album, Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star, was a tour-de-force of conscious and alternative hip hop. Containing the seminal single "Definition" — dedicated to Biggie and Tupac — the album was critically lauded and launched the duo from the underground onto the path to stardom. In 1999 Mos Def’s solo album Black on Both Sides catapulted him to global fame. That left Kweli and Hi-Tek to work on the inaugural Reflection Eternal album, Train of Thought. Featuring guest spots from artists including De La Soul, Mos Def, Xzibit, Rah Digga and Kool G Rap, the album was a stunning mix of erudite jazz-soul and crunching beats. “There was a conscious effort to have a balance,” Kweli told the UK magazine Jockey Slut upon its release in 2000.
Kweli’s first solo album, Quality, saw the light of day in 2002. No longer the new kid on the block, he continued to rail against the misogyny and gangsta braggadocio that pervaded much of contemporary hip hop, while presciently commentating on the post-9/11 mood of America. Most notably, Quality saw him work with the up-and-coming producer Kanye West on the Nina Simone-sampling "Get By." Kweli repaid the debt by appearing on West’s 2004 debut, The College Dropout.
His second solo album, The Beautiful Struggle (2004), was his final release for the by-now-ailing Rawkus. It was a more commercial offering, with guest singers including Mary J. Blige, Faith Evans and John Legend, with Kanye West and the Neptunes involved in the production. It reached No. 14 on the Billboard 200, but received a mixed reception from his underground fans, for whom "anything commercial is death," noted the music website Pitchfork, which concluded in its review: "What frustrates about The Beautiful Struggle is that its flaws are purely musical. Kweli remains the fist-raising visionary." It was a rare career misstep.
Better was to come with the release of his mixtape Right About Now in 2005 on his own Blacksmith Records; and his collaboration with Madlib, the download-only Liberation (2007, via Stones Throw). His third studio album, Eardrum, was generally acclaimed as a return to form, with guests including Norah Jones, West (again), KRS-One and Justin Timberlake; although Vibe cautioned that overall the album "lacks cohesiveness." At the end of the decade he and Hi-Tek resurrected Reflection Eternal: their second album, Revolutions Per Minute, came out in 2010. In early 2011, Kweli's fourth solo album, Gutter Rainbows, was the first to be released on his new imprint, Javotti Media.
Consciously Hip Hop
Later in 2011, after years of teasing fans with talk of a reunion, Black Star released a single, "Fix Up." This was quickly followed by another track, "You Already Knew." In an interview with the website HipHopDx, Kweli confided that the songs were recorded at the Oakland studio of a long-time Black Star fan, MC Hammer.
Often labeled a conscious rapper, Kweli directly referenced this in the title of his 2013 album, Prisoner of Conscious, notable for collaborations with Busta Rhymes, Nelly and Kendrick Lamar. His sixth album, Gravitas, came out in 2014.
Outside music, Kweli has regularly been involved in activism and community projects. In 1997, he and Mos Def bought a Brooklyn bookstore that housed only black authors, Nkiru Books — where Kweli had once worked. The shop eventually closed, but in 2016 Kweli resurrected the Nkiru brand online as part of his website Kweliclub.
In 2000, he and Mos Def were the driving force behind Hip Hop For Respect, an all-star protest record made in response to the murder of Amadou Diallo by New York City police. Kweli has often spoken out at what he perceives to be the systemic oppression of black people, and was particularly vocal in the wake of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson in 2014.
"If you look at the history of the police department, the police started as a slave patrol in order to keep slaves in check," he told Noisey in a 2016 interview. "The prison industry is designed to house people of color, that's why people of color have been over-criminalized… Cops protect the status quo, they protect corporate interest, that's just one element of their job, one tool of systemic racism. There are plenty of cops who join the police force because, at heart, they are good people, they have great intentions in protecting their community, but it's a tough job to do that in a system that's designed to not do that."
In 2015, Kweli was among a number of musicians to celebrate the life of the poet and musical pioneer Gil Scott-Heron at a festival in Liverpool, England. It is perhaps no surprise that Kweli once described hip hop as a latter-day folk music. “It’s the last music that speaks back directly to the people,” he said.
(Profile photo of Talib Kweli by David Corio/Redferns)
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