Talib Kweli and Madlib

Liberation

(Blacksmith Records; 2006)

By Christopher Alexander | 21 October 2007

After Blackstar, Talib Kweli's best work was done on 2004's The Beautiful Mix CD. A stopgap released on the nose of the forthcoming Beautiful Struggle, the mix-tape matched wholly illegal Beatles samples with Talib's usual hyperactive (and occasionally overcrowded) verses. But it was fun listening to him bounce on "Eleanor Rigby's" violins, like a dancer shuffling to a Timbaland beat that wasn't. It was another piece in what seemed like a great year for Kweli: the Kanye West-produced "Get By" was a great single coming off his decent solo album Quality (2002), and no less a person than Jay-Z endorsed him on his blockbusting Black Album. Then he dropped the frankly awful Beautiful Struggle, and everything seemed to be derailed. Its best song featured a piano interpolation of the Police's "Every Little Thing She Does is Magic," sung by John Legend. It's a statement as horrifying as it is baffling, and that's a good way to sum up the rest of the record.

But here we are at the start of 2007, and Kweli's stars seem to again be in alignment. He has his own label, Blacksmith, and has signed Jean Grae, another should've-been yet somehow-isn't. His forthcoming solo album features production from friends and proven successes Hi-Tek, Kanye, and, um, Rick Rubin (although the advance single "More or Less" is, as Wikipedia might say, underwhelming). But first we get this, a collabo with Madlib a/k/a Lord Quas a/k/oh forget it, released as a free download. If the listener feels overwhelmed by the sheer scope of Lib's catalog, you're not alone: the extant reviewer must confess that he is familiar only with Madvillainy (2004, which was brilliant) and The Further Adventures of Lord Quas (2005, which sounds a lot better when ripped to the gills but not that much). Anyone with more comprehensive familiarity may, of course, chastise the critic by following the link appended to his name. As if you needed an invitation.

All the same, it's a smart pairing: both in terms that the two have audiences similar in temperament if not in taste (which is to say white college stoners) and the two bring out good things in the other. Lib gives Kweli some great, lo-fi voodoo on Liberation, and if the music at times sounds unfinished or soft around the edges (a typical complaint when one deals the beat konducta), then it's also a much better fit for the Brooklyn MC than the ill-advised overtures to the top 40 on his last record. He doesn't sound like he's running out of breath, so much so that Lib speeds him up on "Funny Money," an interesting juxtaposition behind the slowed down, dragging beat. Curiously, despite the album's visuals (one album cover shows the Statue of Liberty, with Kweli's face, holding a torch lit by a dollar sign; another looks like an alternate mock up for Lupe Fiasco's Food and Liquor) this is not the most explicitly political work of his career. It's really about as much as any of his other work (see "More or Less"). On "Funny Money" he complains about promoters stiffing him ("One tried to pay me in marijuana / the crowd was so thin he tried to blame Osama and the terror bombers") only to tie it, somehow, to the war on drugs ("We all got vices / so we still get higher than gas prices").

Still, it's great to hear Kweli back on form, and here Lib deserves some extra bows. Even if "The Show" gets off on the wrong foot, it's not his fault the MC is looking the other way when the beat drops. The hook he gives Strong Arm Steady for their posse cut "The Function" is also some inspired lunacy, a pseudo classical run that acts as a Dr. Dre parody. And they both redeem themselves on "Engine Runnin'" a drive-by tale that is all snares and dread, a weary Kweli a walking dead man, his voice sounding like he knows it before he realizes it. 2007 could well be a break out year for both men (the Madvillain follow-up is due as well), and they're off to a good start with Liberation.