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[whitespace] The Day Hip Hop Died

In a defining moment from one of the most provocative MCs in the game, Talib Kweli raps on the chorus of "Too Late": "Nowadays rap artists, coming half-hearted / Commercial like pop or underground like black markets / Where were you the day hip-hop died? / Is it too early to mourn? Is it too late to ride?"

By pronouncing hip-hop dead via the very medium he's pronouncing dead, Kweli creates a crisis of contradiction that is, of course, resolved in another lyric: "Yo, anybody can tell you how it is / What we putting down right here is how it is and how it could be."

On the Reflection Eternal album, Kweli realized the blueprint he laid out in "The Manifesto," which represents hip-hop as a cultural movement galvanizing MCs to stay relevant, recognize their power to "move the crowd like Moses split the sea," and ultimately change the tide of evil and oppression besetting the culture at large. What further set RE apart, though, was its complete and compelling representation of a subculture that is at once revolutionary, yet also rooted in love and respectful of its elders and ancestors ("We the reflections of our ancestors / We'd like to thank you for the building blocks you left us as your spirit possessed us / Yo you blessed us, thank you very much, and God bless you.") Over the course of 21 ambitious tracks, Kweli examines the past with academic rigor, paints a painfully beautiful picture of the present and charts a demanding, yet hopeful course into the future.

While touring in support of RE, his stage persona was utterly convinced of the righteousness of his undertaking--when I saw him perform at Palookaville in 2001, he came on so strong that, like some bubonic chronic that makes one choke, I had to back up off it. I left the show with my brain scrambled and wound up completely reevaluating the affective potential of hip-hop. I listened to RE obsessively for the next two months, hoping to discern the future of the movement.

Eventually, the Quality album dropped. But where Hi Tek's innovative and consistent production kept Kweli's "train of thought" on the tracks, the stable of all-star producers employed on Quality derail him time and again, especially with the distorted guitars chugging dangerously close to rap-rock. In an interview with an online magazine, Kweli admitted that he wrote the lyrics in response to the music rather than the other way around. The mixed results of the record make perfect sense, then, as a situation in which Kweli applied his considerable verbal skills to a disparate hodgepodge of O.P.T. (Other People's Tracks).

On the verge of releasing his third solo record, The Beautiful Struggle, Kweli is touring without his usual backup singers, and by the sound of things last Thursday night at the Catalyst, I have my doubts if he really is "hip-hop's last hope like Obi-Wan Kanobi."

First of all, he seemed to be on auto-pilot for some of the show, like he's getting a bit tired of some of his own rhymes. His lack of engagement diluted the power of some of his best lines; when they were delivered years ago with a level of conviction that commanded the attention of the "90 percent of your brain that you ain't using," some of his words felt like they had the power to echo into eternity.

What did we get at this show? An encore that amounted to the mainstage equivalent of the Catalyst's Fat Tuesdays, where all the girls get up and grind onstage while the DJ spins mainstream hip-hop straight off of KDON. Which is fine for Fat Tuesdays, but shouldn't we expect a bit more at a Talib Kweli show? This is a guy that lashes out at gangsta rappers with lines like, "These cats drink champagne and toast to death and pain / like slaves on a ship talking about who got the flyest chains."

I'm not saying that just because he's smart, he shouldn't get to party. It's just that all too often, the disenfranchised debase their cultural struggle until it's nothing but a fashionable trend. In much the same way that, say, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy represents a marginalized population (gay men) as born-again Masters of Consumerism, so does Jay-Z represent another marginalized population (African American men) as Masters of the Bling-Bling. Kweli represents a thoughtful counterpoint: "Have you forgotten? / We pickin' 100% designer name-brand cotton."


Clarity Process and 30 Years War perform on March 13 at 418 Project. John Butler Trio performs on March 12 at Moe's Alley. Bargain Music performs on March 13 at the Med. Valis, 3rd Stone From the Sun and Automatic Animal perform on March 12 at Aptos Club.

Mike Connor

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From the March 10-17, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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