NEW YORK — High expectations can be hard to meet, even for a deeply respected MC like Talib Kweli.
The New York rapper, best known for his collaborations with Mos Def and Kanye West, quietly navigated underground success before breaking through in 2002 with his surprise hit "Get By," produced by West for Kweli's solo debut, Quality.
But the much-anticipated follow-up, 2004's The Beautiful Struggle, failed to deliver on the expectations generated by his previous effort. As a result, the album didn't even crack the top 10 of the Billboard albums chart, debuting at a disappointing #14. To make matters worse, many longtime fans said the album's production was overly commercial.
Now signed to a new label, Warner Bros., Kweli is putting the finishing touches on Ear Drum, tentatively scheduled for a November 7 release via his Blacksmith Music imprint. (It's his third proper solo LP, but he's also released albums in partnership with DJ Hi-Tek — 2000's Reflection Eternal — and Mos Def as Black Star. He's also guested on dozens of songs.) With this album, the Brooklyn wordsmith hopes to finally get past any criticism his last effort received.
"I wanted to get back into having an album where all the songs have a similar consistency," Kweli said. "With Quality and Beautiful Struggle, the songs dictated the beats. This time, I sort of let the beats pick themselves. It was the music [that didn't connect last time]; it wasn't with what I said. Because the lyrics were pretty consistent with the rest of my other albums. It was just the music I chose to rap over. I have to think about a lot of things that I didn't think about on Beautiful Struggle. I grew up listening to Sting, so it made sense to sample that [on "Around My Way"]. But to my fans, I guess it didn't" (see "Talib Kweli Lets Music, Not Words, Drive His Beautiful Struggle").
Kweli recently previewed a handful of tracks from Ear Drum at Battery Studios in New York. From the alluring strings of "Soon a New Day" (featuring Norah Jones) to the dizzying horns of "Deliverance," it's clear that, despite the pop appeal of his featured guest on the song, the rapper is returning to the more musically rich backdrops of his debut. In fact, Kweli says he wasn't very familiar with the multiple-Grammy-winner's work beyond her ubiquitous hit "Don't Know Why." But after a strong recommendation and an unexpected social connection to the singer, the rapper reached out to collaborate.
"My manager, Corey [Smyth], suggested her to me," Kweli said. "I wasn't even thinking about Norah Jones at all. I only knew her from her one record. Ahmir ["?uestlove" Thompson of the Roots] overheard us talking about it and gave me her e-mail address. I sent the song over to her, and she liked it and did it in a week. She goes out of the box often, to prove 'I really get down.' And it turns out we work with the same musicians, and she fit in."
Other featured guests slated to appear on Ear Drum include underground female rapper Jean Grae and California outfit Strong Arm Steady Gang, both of whom Kweli has signed to Blacksmith. The budding exec wanted to be at the helm of careers that mimicked his own. "These were like-minded artists who are really exciting to me but who weren't in the system," he said. "And that's where I was at one point."
Currently, Kweli is on the road promoting his album and lead single, "Listen." The rapper hopes to get back to New York soon to get in the studio with Kanye, Just Blaze and possibly Mos Def to wrap up tracks scheduled to appear on Ear Drum.
Talib Kweli tour dates:
- 9/7 - Bend, OR @ Domino Room
- 9/8 - Seattle, WA @ Chop Suey
- 9/21 - Chicago, IL @ Loyola University
- 9/30 - New York, NY @ Central Park
Want to see how Kweli rates with MTV's hip-hop brain trust? Check out "10 Candidates For The Next 'Greatest MCs Of All Time' List."