On the 2007 song “Holy Moly,” Brooklyn cult god Talib Kweli accurately noted that his music draws from an ample array of genres: “Funk, jazz, rhythm and blues, soul, gospel.” With each oeuvre, Kweli defies all the backpacker talk, proving that, Jay-Z aside, he is perhaps the world’s most eclectic and adaptable rapper. He has recorded jolting tracks with everyone from Norah Jones to Madlib, will.i.am to DJ Quik, rarely penciling in time for the rote, unimaginative radio concessions that have plagued fellow Rawkus affiliate Common. Kweli’s strongest solo efforts, 2002’s Quality and 2007’s Eardrum, are tastefully restrained but effervescent. They sound alive.
The detractions against Kweli, which have long been copious, are thoroughly invalid. Kweli has a clumsy, rhythm-less flow? “Waitin’ for the DJ” proves otherwise. Kweli is dull? “Get By” is a club-burner on par with anything from 50’s first album. Kweli is a pussy? Take a listen to “Hater Player.” Kweli’s introspection doesn’t pack an emotional punch? “The Blast” will leave you breathless. The same can be said for much of Revolutions Per Minute, his newest collaboration with backpack maestro Hi-Tek and their first since 2000’s beloved Train of Thought. Sinking his no-frills flow into calm, bassy tracks, Kweli lands punchline after punchline with the kind of finesse Jay and Common could only dream of.
Not everything is magic. “In This World” trudges along so limply that it’s hard to believe it was produced by the same man responsible for classics like “Get That Dough” and “Where It Started At.” But at their best, Kweli and Hi-Tek possess a matchless synergy. The jaunty “Midnight,” featuring Estelle, overflows with sass and spunk, and it’s preceded by “Lifting Off,” which boasts the creamiest soul groove of 2010. “In the Red” salutes fallen icons like James Brown and Michael Jackson, riding a melancholy xylophone riff in the process. “Strangers (Paranoid)” is darker but no less effective, with a slithery, sinisterly on-point verse from Bun B.
Kweli seldom misses a step, jumping topics (“white-people drugs,” the crumbling auto industry, Britain’s ruthless imperialism, DMX’s faded career) as effortlessly as he varies his flow; the rhymer even adopts a vague Caribbean cadence on “Ballad of the Black Gold.” More impressively, he makes a Chester French duet work, rendering those showy Harvard alums an afterthought with comedic wordplay (“Write for the chicks like Judy Blume”) and a horn-stomp production that recalls Lupe Fiasco’s “Go Baby.” This is brainy, energizing stuff, and sometimes (such as on “Just Begun,” where Kweli trades sharp bars with J. Cole, Jay Electronica, and Mos Def over a beautiful sax loop), it hits like lightning.