Only a fool, and a deaf one at that, would discount the package of skills that Brooklyn rapper Talib Kweli displays on the microphone. At any point on most any of his discs and mix tapes, Kweli is capable of showcasing a ferocious rhythmic flow, fueled by a vivid imagination that roams easily from poignant intimacy to obscure pop cultural asides to searing sociopolitical outrage to cleverly incisive insults worthy of hip-hop's star-studded, battle-rapping legacy.
But his commercial instincts are as lousy as ever.
"Right About Now: The Official Sucka Free CD" offers merely the latest evidence that Kweli is apparently destined to retain more hip-hop cachet than cash. There are more than a fistful of lyrical gems on the disc, each as distinctive as the fingers on your hands. At least once or twice on a majority of the tracks, you understand why hip-hop kingpin Jay-Z once said in a song: "If skills sold, truth be told / I'd probably be, lyrically / Talib Kweli."
Yet there are also at least three or four tracks clearly designed for radio play -- such as "Fly That Knot" and "Rock On" -- that feature stale, clamorous production and clunky refrains painfully stitched into raps that are otherwise quicksilver-smooth.
Kweli has his own typically brilliant explanation for his inability to go platinum, encapsulating his career to date with a blitz of explanatory rhymes on the title track. But as much as he castigates record labels (calling MCA the "Musical Cemetery of America") and label owners (like Interscope's Jimmy Iovine), the bottom line on Kweli's bottom line is that he's too willfully perverse to buy into the "hits" he's ostensibly trying to create.
Classic albums in tandem with rapper Mos Def (as Black Star) and DJ Hi-Tek (as Reflection Eternal) gave Kweli impeccable credentials as a "backpacker" or "conscience rapper." But he was too restless, and followed that up with solo discs full of stylistically varied guest producers, rappers and singers, almost purposefully designed to test the loyalty of his fan base. "Right About Now" comes less than 14 months after "The Beautiful Struggle," his frequently awkward, too-obvious bid to exploit the commercial buzz Jay-Z created. Kweli has described "Right About Now" as more immediate and less producer-driven than "Struggle," and so it is. But the marvelous inscrutability remains.
One of the best songs on the disc is "Ms. Hill," a heartfelt paean to ex-Fugees singer Lauryn Hill, set to a speeded-up sample from folkie Ben Kweller. Another is "The Beast," which contains the thunderous bloodlust of an Xbox villain with lyrical acrobatics to match -- until the end, when Kweli twists it into a cautionary parable about our universal potential for violence. There's "Roll Off Me," a heartsick ode to perseverance in the face of depression, and "Where Ya Gonna Run," a snarling broadside against critics and pretenders, featuring Jean Grae (who beats out Mos Def and MF Doom as the record's most vital guest star). And there's "Drugs, Basketball & Rap," a somersaulting social commentary that inveighs against typecasting while referencing everything from the Lemony Snicket series to the sex life of late rap critic C. Delores Tucker. Each reflects a different facet of Talib Kweli, the anti-Ludacris of hip-hop.