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Though less than a decade has passed since 1998, it seems like a lifetime ago. There was a Democrat in the White House and a robust economy, and the greatest threat to national security arose from a little stain on a blue dress. It was also the year America was introduced to Brooklyn MC Talib Kweli. Along with rapper-cum-actor Mos Def, Kweli was part of the seminal underground hip-hop group Black Star, which shared the same name as the famous shipping line. On its self-titled debut album, the duo dealt with issues of reparations, racial segregation, and the role of hip-hop in black America.
Outside of maybe Kanye West and Common, these topics aren't normally broached by mainstream MCs, but they are ones Kweli would return to throughout his career. And while no one is suggesting artistry take a back seat to politics, it is naive to assert that hip-hop takes place in a cultural and political vacuum, and it's important to realize that stances hip-hop stars take are important.
The song "Thieves in the Night," from the Black Star album, is characteristic of Kweli's approach. The track begins with a slowly descending piano line that lingers just above a simple yet effective breakbeat. Kweli takes the first verse, and for those unaccustomed to his voice, he initially comes across as overly exposed and vulnerable sounding more like a professor than a drug dealer, which is certainly a death knell for a hip-hop performer. But the listener's misgivings fade as the lyrics kick in: "I asked him why we follow the law of the bluest eye/He looked at me, he thought about it/Was like, 'I'm clueless, why?'/The question was rhetorical, the answer is horrible/Our morals are out of place and our lives full of sorrow."
For a hip-hop nation still reeling from the deaths of Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur, the song's mournful, meditative social critique felt like the antidote to a half-decade of bullets, bling, and blood.
"When I first came into the game, lyrics and art were a lot more respected than it is now," Kweli recalls. "Now what people respect is your hustle and ambition.... At the time, I just wanted to rap and have people tell me that I was dope. It was all I really cared about."
That attitude was infectious. And following the release of Black Star, the golden age of hip-hop's DIY movement began to coalesce. Acts such as Black Star and The Roots were signed to major labels. There was a renewed interest in underground stalwarts such as Oakland's Hieroglyphics and Boston's Gangstar. New artists such as New York's Company Flow and Boston's Mr. Lif were quickly emerging into the national spotlight.
And to say we've come a long way since those days isn't to say we've necessarily progressed. After a surge of social awareness following Hurricane Katrina, the dismal reality is that hip-hop seems to be returning to business as usual. Dipset general Cam'ron was shot in D.C., G-Unit's 50 Cent expressed empathy for the plight of George Bush, and, in a recent issue of hip-hop bible Murder Dog, one of the genre's most talented new MCs, Atlanta's Young Jeezy, declared he wasn't a rapper as much as he was a hustler.
But wasn't the hustler first/rapper second mentality what got us into trouble in the first place?
"Now that's the norm; it's what everyone says," Kweli remarks. "I think that it's good for young black men to take control and be ambitious, to take something that belongs to them and make some money off of it. But with that said, I think that if the artistic integrity is allowed to fall too far, there will be nothing more to hang on to. It'll be worthless."
Pressed further, Kweli provides an appropriate metaphor for the state of hip-hop: "I see people with these big, gaudy diamonds with all this color in them. The diamonds are huge, but they have imperfections in them, and they're not worth as much as the smaller diamond that's perfect."
Though he's critical of some of the attitudes and rhetoric coming from these artists, he also believes that while their semantics and points of reference may be afoul, their artistry and entrepreneurial spirit are well placed.
"Hip-hop has transcended the rhetoric of saying it's a lifestyle and has truly become one. You have real entrepreneurs and real moguls," Kweli states. "Jeezy and the others' intention may not be to contribute to the genre, and that's what they're saying that their intentions are only to contribute to their well-being. But you can tell that they got a love for it. So a lot of what they're saying is just posing, bravado, and posturing. Trust me, Young Jeezy loves hip-hop just as much as the next dude. He wouldn't be as talented as he is if he wasn't paying close attention to it."
Realizing equity is the next step after equality, Kweli recently began his own label, Blacksmith Records. Kweli's album Right About Now marks the label's first release. Although the album lacks the polish of some of his previous work he considers it more of a mixtape than an official CD there is still enough meat to hook a revolution on. Over squawking bursts of organ and bass notes that stretch across multiple bars, the lyrics to "Drugs, Basketball and Rap" address the ingrained misconception that urban youth have a limited skill set.