alib Kweli may very well be a name you’ve heard but can’t exactly place. And that’s a shame, frankly, because he’s a talented, energetic, thoughtful and slightly contradictory MC that is most often a joy to listen to. After releasing two collaboration albums ,BlackStar with Mos Def and, more recently, Reflection Eternal: Train of Thought with DJ Hi-Tek, Kweli steps out on his own for the very first time with Quality, with mixed results.
Kweli has often received the criticism of being boring. Personally, I’ve never found him boring before, but with an improved flow and more clever and interesting wordplay on this album you’d be hard pressed to make this generalization here. His lyrics are often deep: “Writin’ rhymes in my captain's log, BlackStar date / MC's fake like Egyptian Gods in Stargate” In addition, although he doesn’t rhyme multi-syllabically, which is obvious next to Pharoahe Monch, and, to some extent, Black Thought, Kweli still has a good flow, as seen on “Guerilla Monsoon Rap”. It seems obvious here that Kweli took his time with his rhymes, leaving few holes in his album lyrically.
One of the other major criticisms in the past, of Kweli, has been his supposed inability to carry an album on his own. This claim is pretty absurd, considering Reflection Eternal: Train of Thought was a solo album, even with the help of only one producer. Quality goes on to show, for the most part though, that Kweli does need a little bit of a crutch. Even though the liner notes may say otherwise, very few of the songs feature Kweli alone. Most of the songs only have a guest for a hook, but even still, the message that they send is often more powerful or memorable than Kweli’s. “Rush?” is a great song, but Kweli sounds strange on his own. No question about it, even on his solo songs in the past, he has sounded better matched against another, contrasting voice like Vinia Mojica’s on “The Blast” from Reflection. On Quality, these are clearly the best songs. Mos Def shows up to lend a bland chorus “I know how you feel, Kweli / I really know how you feel” to “Joy”, but with their history as great friends, it somehow works. The already released Soundbombing 3 track, “Put it in the Air”, features DJ Quik on the hook and a small verse, and the two of them provide a different party atmosphere than West Coast or New York through hip-hop, almost like a potluck dinner, dance and smoke-out. My heroes, The Cocoa Brovas (aka Smif-N-Wessun, damn the real company for making them change their name), show up on “Gun Music” and only drop a small but effective verse and a reggae influenced refrain. Even Bilal stops by to get in on the act on two songs “Talk to You” and the first single, “Waiting for the DJ”. His falsetto warbles, a bit different than his normal voice, are only a background on the latter, third behind Kweli’s voice and the amazing production.
The single, “Waiting for the DJ”, is perfect in its initially relaxed intro and increasingly intense string plucks, building towards a crescendo that it never reaches. It’s exciting and calming, eliciting a mixed response from the listener. “Guerilla Monsoon Rap”, featuring Pharoahe Monch and Black Thought, is backed by Kanye West’s harmonic melodies, creating a hard-hitting beat that is perfect for the three ferocious MCs. The song sounds like something that might have appeared on the original Blueprint, with a little more of a hard, underground edge. “Gun Clap Music” is a faux-reggae and 80’s techno collaboration that just works. Or maybe it’s just my love of the Cocoa Brovas. Anyway, more Kanye West production follows on “Get By”, a hustler’s anthem, which is never a bad thing. The song fits together with the beat very well- as it does most of the album.
Quality is a very conflicted album. On one hand, many of the tracks are close to the level mind blowing, production and rhyme wise. On the other hand, some of the tracks are just plain boring and muddy. The absence of Hi-Tek is really noticeable on this album, as his production is crisp and exactly what the album needs more of. The majority of the tracks are definitely well-done on the production end, but some need a bit more refinement before they appear on a major label release, especially one that is under as much pressure for commercial success as this one.
Reviewed by: Brett Berliner
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01