While Talib Kweli hasn't exactly been an anonymous figure on hip-hop's grand stage, it certainly helped that Jay-Z name-checked him as a rhyming inspiration on his song "Moment of Clarity." Newly platinum rapper Kanye West has also thanked Kweli publicly, for bringing him out as a rapper when most people only knew him as a knob-twiddling producer.
Soon, Kweli will capitalize on the increasing goodwill when he releases his new album, The Beautiful Struggle, on June 22. For some people, though, the album came early when a rough, unmixed version of it was leaked online to hip-hop chat rooms two weeks ago.
"I'm still upset," Kweli admitted.
When Kweli discovered that his album had been uploaded to various hip-hop sites and peer-to-peer networks, he fired off an angry open letter to his fans, admonishing the anonymous source of the leak and those who were distributing the album.
"I wrote that the dude was a loser — which I still feel," Kweli explained. "I wrote that he's going to be dealt with — which I still feel. I just wrote that it's sad and depressing that I put all this work into this and now I have to change everything that I was going to do."
Kweli was still wrapping up work on The Beautiful Struggle when it was leaked and he will now alter some things he may not have before. The guiding creative force behind the album will not change, however. For this album, Kweli says he's being driven more by the music than anything else — just as he was for his song "Get By," off his last LP, 2002's Quality. That track, an inspirational anthem about the everyday lives of black folks, was his most successful song to date, building on the recognition he established with his groups Black Star and Reflection Eternal.
"There's always been an agenda or focus to [my music] where I felt like I had to prove something or felt like I had to showcase my lyricism or how I could sound on this beat," he explained. "The difference with 'Get By' is that I let the music completely drive where I was going. For The Beautiful Struggle, I wanted the music and beats to lead where I wanted to go, [too]."
Thus far on the new album, Kweli used a range of producers, including Kanye, Hi-Tek and Midi Mafia. The first single will be a song called "I Try," which Kweli admits is similar in feel to "Get By." It features a beat made by Kanye, a hook written by keyboard prodigy John Legend and the voice of Mary J. Blige.
"It is similar [to 'Get By'] but then it's such a feel-good record that we feel like the world's gotta hear it anyway," Kweli said of the single. "Mary sounds incredible on it. She put a lot of heart and soul into it."
Kweli dismissed rumors that his signing to Jay-Z and Dame Dash's Roc-A-Fella Records was imminent. "My label situation as of right now is pretty straight — I'm on Geffen," he said. But he didn't deny the possibility of working with the Roc: "I got so much respect for Damon Dash. Roc-A-Fella has definitely moved me as a rapper, a young person and a black man. So I look forward to doing something with them in the future."
In the meantime, to tide people over until The Beautiful Struggle is properly released, Kweli has put together a new mixtape, set to drop next week. It features Kanye, Common, Consequence and Jean Grae, as well as some names that may surprise his regular fans.
"I got Styles on it, Fabolous on it and Free from '106 & Park,' " he boasted. "Music is music. All these people, I don't care who you talk about, they're in it because they love music."