The Beautiful Struggle
alib Kweli’s heart is in the right place, but the road to horrible hip-hop is often paved with good intentions.
His critical support has always confounded me. It does not shock me that the critical mainstream jumped on the Kweli bandwagon; ever since “The Message” topped the 1982 Pazz and Jop poll, it was clear that hip-hop was going to have to justify its existence with “message” tracks in order to receive the recognition given to rock yet denied to disco. What did shock me was that the hip-hop press, perhaps in a guilty, knee-jerk response to the bacchanal hip-hop that essentially gave rise to the genre in the first place, chose to ride along. Not that I dislike “message” hip-hop per se; its existence is a natural result of the genre’s maturation. But when it comes to the new album The Beautiful Struggle, Talib Kweli comes across as an inconsequential cipher.
The album will undoubtedly receive all kinds of undeserved critical accolades, but it is easy to see why; Kweli’s message throughout is one that I and most right-thinking individuals are sympathetic to, i.e. promotion of love and understanding and an indictment of apathy and ignorance of the world’s problems. Unfortunately, while Kweli’s message is spot-on, his delivery of that message is highly flawed.
For most of the album he does little more than create a laundry list of the problems the world faces. Positive message or not, the avalanche of the world’s problems is wearying rather than edifying. Talib does not have the charisma or dramatic weight to pull this off, his flow is awkward and not particularly conversational. The youthful enthusiasm that drove his earlier albums and put him in such stark contrast with the older, more skillful Mos Def has dried up, and the lyrics simply seem forced. It is Kweli’s job to make the plight of the world’s underclass sympathetic; instead he sounds like that college student handing out flyers trying to convince you to vote for Nader.
The beats that accompany Kweli’s lackluster rapping veer dangerously close to muzak at times, especially on “Around My Way,” which aims for grandiosity and lands on schmaltz. Despite the contributions of producers Kanye West, Just Blaze, Hi-Tek and the Neptunes, the beats are surprisingly flat. There are no songs on this album that can really compare to past Kweli cuts “The Blast” and “Get By,” both of which rank as Talib’s finest moments. “I Try,” the first single off the album, even attempts to ape “Get By” but falls far short of the target.
“I have trouble trying to write some shit that bangs in the club through the night / When people suffer tonight,” Kweli raps at one point on the song—a poignant note, but one that rings hollow. If Kweli is so concerned with the welfare of the suffering masses, why is he recording pop music? When I heard this line, I understood why the critical appreciation for Talib makes me so uncomfortable. He sets himself up as the hero of the world’s victims, the underclass, and the impoverished—or he certainly mentions them a lot in his lists of worldwide injustice. His lyrics have all the misplaced sentiment of your average activist college student protesting the Iraq War six months after the fact. It seems unsurprising, then, that college students make up such a large portion of his audience, while the people he chooses to speak for would prefer either the charismatic, eloquent parables of an MC like Tupac, or “some shit that bang[s] in the clubs” so they can forget about their tribulations for a few hours. Kweli may claim to speak for the people, but there is a reason very few are listening.
Reviewed by: David Drake
Reviewed on: 2004-10-06