"The Beautiful Struggle"
While others are banging in the club or doing guest shots on the latest dance-floor diva's record, Talib Kweli continues to reign as one of the best rap lyricists around. Heavyweights such as Jay-Z give him props in their raps, and critics have praised his words in his solo career and in his earlier projects with Mos Def (Black Star) and Hi-Tek (Reflection Eternal).
It's clear with "The Beautiful Struggle" that Kweli is not content to just be known for his lyrics anymore. A big-time lineup of producers including Hi-Tek (for three tracks), the Neptunes and Kanye West plus guest vocalists such as Mary J. Blige, Common, Anthony Hamilton, Faith Evans and Jean Grae take dead aim at mainstream success.
The results are polished hardcore. The collaborations with old partner Hi-Tek are the strongest tracks. The beats are tight and accessible, and the production enhances Kweli's raps without engulfing them. The title track in particular is vintage Kweli quality. Speaking over a jazzy riff he rips off the lines "I speak in schools a lot cuz they say I'm intelligent / No it's cuz I'm dope if I was wack I'd be irrelevant . . . you leaning to the left and laughter's the best medicine / But the trouble you have today just can't be laughed away / Stay optimistic thinking change is gonna come like Donnie Hathaway."
The Neptunes-produced "Broken Glass," with a lyrical nod to rap classic "The Message," bumps along, all starts and stops. "Black Girl Pain," inspired by Kweli's daughter, and "Ghetto Show," with cameos by Common and Hamilton are soulful slices of life.
Notwithstanding the lone misstep, an awkward "Planet Rock"-inspired clunker called "We Got the Beat," "The Beautiful Struggle" is a legitimate bid for Kweli to break as big as he deserves to be.
Lyrics are also key for Saul Williams, who has published three books of poetry and appeared on "Def Poetry Jam." You may recognize him from his appearances on TV's "Girlfriends" and in films such as "K-Pax" and "Slam." Oh, and his debut album, 2001's "Amethyst Rock Star," was named album of the year by the Times of London.
He comes across like a young, black John Giorno, reciting words both evocative and provocative over driving beats that are part DIY-garage rock and part Southern California thrash. "List of Demands (Reparations)" is a driving, infectious number, one of the more accessible ones musically but no less sharp lyrically with lines like "Protect your neck 'cause I'm breaking out of my noose / I got a list of demands written on the palm of my hands / I'll ball my fist and you're gonna know where I stand."
Listening to Williams it becomes clear where he stands -- at a lonely spot where rock, punk, rap, poetry slams and politics converge and become art that makes you sit up and say, "Whoa, what's this?"
-- Curt Fields
Talib Kweli appearing Saturday at Sonar; Kweli and Saul Williams appearing Thursday at the 9:30 club. * To hear a free Sound Bite from Talib Kweli, call Post-Haste at 301-313-2200 and press 8112; to hear Saul Williams, press 8113. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)