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Friday, April 22, 2011

Talib Kweli @ The Rave

April 21, 2011

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   Though swagger and outsized charisma never go out of style, lyrical prowess seems to have a shifting value in the rap world. It's strange, of course, considering that the MC has always been the focus in hip-hop, but in the commercial sphere, complex rhymes and spitfire flows take a back seat to dance-floor friendly beats and big choruses. That may partially explain why Talib Kweli isn't more of a star right now. Kweli, who broke into the mainstream, alongside Mos Def, as half of the duo Black Star, also has been hamstrung by the waning interest in "conscious" rap among the general public, who appear to be more interested in tales of partying and sexual exploits. But the whims of popular taste haven't stopped Kweli from dropping albums full of carefully constructed rhymes about social and political justice, including this year's Gutter Rainbows, which has been greeted with warm reviews in indie-rap circles.

   Walking onstage at The Rave, Kweli appeared confident and eager to work the crowd, which, while still respectable in size, seemed a little thin for someone of his stature. The front end of the set was loaded with cuts from the new album, which, while not a departure by any means, have a definite energy and drive. Over the years, I had often heard anecdotally that Kweli was something of a disappointment when it came to live performances (losing the beat, weak freestyles, that sort of thing), but here he was perfectly in tune with the talented live band (keys, drums, bass and turntables) and unleashed several tongue-twisting bursts of lyricism, packing an incredible amount of language into a single breath.

   As the show went on, Kweli and company dug deeper into his back catalog, unearthing a few classic Black Star tracks (including "Definition") as well as material from Reflection Eternal, his collaboration with Hi-Tek. Perhaps the most surprising inclusion was his cover/reworking of The Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby," which got his 2004 release The Beautiful Mixtape pulled from the shelves for its unauthorized sample.

   By the time he closed out the show with the crowd-pleasing "Get By," Kweli had conclusively demonstrated that his brand of old-school-inflected New York rap is built to last, no matter what trends come and go, and that when the pop pendulum inevitably swings back in favor of vocabulary and social commentary, he'll be ready.