Talib Kweli makes his living with his mouth, but he's not content for his sound just to be heard. He wants to move you as well. His latest, Ear Drum, links the function of the ear with the percussive rhythms of his speech, providing movement to your lower regions.
He's got something for your head as well. The Brooklyn-born rapper is working from the inside of the music biz to make hip-hop a more respected genre with his intelligent, thought-provoking lyrics. "We need more rap songs that stress purpose/With less misogyny and less curses/Let's put more depth in our verses," he says on "More Or Less," from his new release on his own label, Blacksmith Music. But that doesn't necessarily mean stopping those already doing that. "I didn't say that we need more songs like that to be made, those songs are being made," Kweli said by phone from his New York home base. "The mainstream needs to play more songs like that. Those artists that are making the songs are out there. Mainstream music is a very unfair, unbalanced portrait of what's available."
But Ear Drum is not a preachy album about social change. Throughout his career, the rapper has stressed the themes of self esteem and pride -- this generation's version of James Brown's say-it-loud-I'm-black-and-I'm-proud musical movement. Kweli says there's no particular theme this time out. "I wanted to focus more on the musicality of the album."
There's plenty of that, with a bushel of guest stars including Kanye West, longtime DJ partner Hi Tek, Justin Timberlake and Jean Grae. Grae, a frequent visitor to Kweli's ventures and one of the first acts signed to his label, posted a self-deprecating criticism of herself on her MySpace space, saying she sounds like a member of the children's program The Electric Company on crack or LeVar Burton. But he bristles at the comment of one critic who said she's too clever to be a female MC, which Kweli calls "a very poor, ignorant statement. I think she's one of the best in the history of female MCs."
Kweli believes his opinions will carry more impact now that he's a label head. "Now, I'm the boss," he says. He intends to provide visual as well as verbal insights into his business with his own media operation, Blacksmith TV. It'll be 10 episodes containing tour footage as well as his day-to-day life. "For people to understand how hard we work in today's business: you're grinding, you're hustling more than anything. Just because we don't always rap about it, people don't always see it."
What they have seen over Kweli's career is a rapper willing to take chances, to gamble with new concepts and ideas. On 2004's The Beautiful Struggle, some argued that he'd gone commercial, forsaking his social conscience for mainstream success. Rapping about losing his religion on "Around My Way" over an ooh-ooh chorus recreation of The Police's "Every Little Thing You Do Is Magic" didn't do much for his hard-core followers.
But he was vindicated by the record's bottom line. "As much as a lot of my fans don't like it, it's the one that's got me the most money and the most accolades." He believes that a lot of his fan base is onboard because of that album and that base is still there. 2002's Black Star, his first outing with Mos Def, is his fans' favorite, the one people ask about the most. "So it goes to show that album sales are not as important as you think they are," he says. "The one my fans like the most is my least selling one."
The criticism has just made him stronger, he says. "So it's important that I did A Beautiful Struggle, and it's still important that I dealt with the criticisms and went on to do something else."
No matter what you call his music, the only label that matters to Kweli is integrity. "My legacy has been to be the type of artist who never changes his name or who he is and becomes a caricature of himself in order to sell records."
Talib Kweli plays the Neighborhood Theatre on Wednesday, Aug. 1 at 9 p.m. Raleigh DJ BroRabb opens. It is an 18 and up show with tickets for $25.