It's strange to think of Quality as a coming-out party for Talib Kweli, since an artist as respected as Kweli shouldn't need one. In the late '90s, the thoughtful MC (whose name combines Arabic and Ghanaian to mean "seeker of truth") rose to prominence with a pair of highly regarded albums. Black Star, recorded in 1998 with fellow New York City MC Mos Def, put Kweli on the map, although he was quickly overshadowed by his partner. The following year, Kweli teamed with DJ Hi Tek on the impressive Reflection Eternal, but once again his cohort garnered the lion's share of the acclaim.
On Quality, the master collaborator finally stands alone. OK, maybe he's not alone, since the cadre of guest stars on the record reads like a who's who of underground hip-hop. Still, this is Kweli's album, with hit-makers like Megahertz, DJ Quik, Kanye West, and Jay Dee furnishing him with diverse hooks, crisp beats, and thumping bass lines. Given room to roam, Kweli showcases his stylistic versatility, deftly shifting tempos and rhyme schemes, often within the same tune. He seems intent on showing he can do it all this time around -- a love song here, a political manifesto there, an old-fashioned pass-the-mic fest here -- and for the most part, he's up to the task.
While his lyrics are as insightful as ever, his delivery is more confident and controlled now. Perfectly at home with the easy exuberance of "Get By," Kweli can also be angry without being arrogant -- as on "Gun Music" -- and he reveals a newfound vulnerability on such hopeful songs as "Joy" and "Won't You Stay." Kweli moves from the rapid playfulness of "Good to You" to the plaintive "Where Do We Go" to the hard-hitting political defiance of "The Proud."
Quality's overall sound owes a strong debt to Philly soul/rap artists like the Roots, Jill Scott, and Bilal. The music covers a lot of territory, jumping from slow chants and somber strings to funk-inflected dance grooves. Most tracks make good use of two- and three-part harmonies, supplied by the likes of Vinia Mojica, Novel, Res, and Kendra Ross. In fact, the album is so laden with sugary pop and suave, intricately layered vocals that you almost expect Quincy Jones to appear in the liner notes.
There are, unfortunately, a few moments when Kweli falls prey to old habits. He's still not willing to abandon empty boasting or verbal muscle-flexing. It's not that there's anything wrong with a little swagger; it's just that Kweli doesn't have as much left to prove as he thinks he does.
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