Kweli's struggle doesn't feature the requisite bitches, bling, hos, and gotta-get-mine gangsta-isms. He doesn't spit self-congratulatory rhymes about how hard he had it in the ghetto or count the pieces of lead he's taken. Instead, he lets the music speak for itself.
"You can't really appreciate beauty unless you've been through some sort of trouble," Kweli says from his hometown of New York. "If all you're doing is struggling and you never stop to celebrate life, then you're struggling for nothing."
While many rappers came up among guns and drugs, the 29-year-old Brooklyn native was raised in academia. Both parents are college professors, and that has molded Kweli's lyrical approach to hip-hop. "It definitely made me question everything," Kweli says of growing up in that environment, "and realize I can't take things just on the surface level. I have to figure out why things are the way they are. And my father was really into music. I've been into it since I was born."
In high school, Kweli met fellow rapper Dante Smith (a.k.a. Mos Def), and in 1998, they formed Black Star. The duo's self-titled debut was immediately stamped a classic, getting its shine among the hardcore rappers of the day for its reflective, positive lyrics and corpulent beats. (Kweli and Mos Def recently appeared on Chappelle's Show to perform the song "What's Beef?", foreshadowing a new Black Star album.) 2000 brought his first solo CD, Reflection Eternal, and in 2002, Kweli released Quality, which featured the hit "Get By."
Throughout his albums, Kweli's lyrics have been the bread, and his white-hot flow has been the butter. So much so that Jay-Z gave him this shoutout on a song from The Black Album: "If skills sold, truth be told, I'd probably be, lyrically, Talib Kweli/Truthfully, I wanna rhyme like Common Sense/But I did five mil/I ain't been rhymin' like Common since."
To which Kweli shouted back on the song "Ghetto Show": "If lyrics sold, then truth be told/I'd probably be just as rich and famous as Jay-Z."
The Beautiful Struggle is rife with verbal dexterity, polished production, and a roster of guests like Kanye West, Jean Grae, Mary J. Blige, and Common. "I try to let the music decide where I was going to go, to have an idea of what I wanted to do," Kweli says of the writing process on Struggle. While there is more focus on the beats this time around, Kweli's never tongue-tied. On "Beautiful Struggle": "Yo, I heard it's said the revolution won't be televised/But in the land of milk and honey, there's a date you gotta sell it by." And later in the song: "Yo, I speak at schools a lot 'cause they say I'm intelligent/Nervous 'cause I'm dope/If I was wack, I'd be irrelevant." And then there's "Going Hard," where Kweli questions child labor laws: "Say you never scared there's kids in other countries/Making jerseys, jeans, and sneakers they could never wear/Parents never there; they're busy building homes they can't afford to buy/Cars they can't afford to drive/Working jobs that don't support their life/You busy screaming gangsta/Gangsta, all that talk is trife."
Oh shit. Of course people are gonna try to label.
"People buy my music not because I'm socially conscious but because it's dope," he says of the tendency to tag him as this or that. "There's a lot of people who put out conscious music that doesn't sound good, and it's not interesting. The music has to come first, before the message."
Maybe that's part of the struggle, as it was so eloquently reiterated by Jay-Z: can a forward-thinking MC with the verbal dexterity of Kweli coexist within the confines of hip-hop's blingism? Perhaps it's not about the struggle to coexist but about accomplishing the tougher feat of getting people to sit down and listen. If that's the case, Kweli's struggle hasn't been in vain.