Popular hip-hop’s ever-growing obsession with materialism has been devastating to its quality of lyrics and production over the past five years. It seems as though rappers will never grow tired of finding new words to rhyme with “Benz,” and even the best commercial producers will drop everything they’re doing if Justin Timberlake calls to request their services. In general, hip-hop is in the middle of a creative Dark Age. But ever since his emergence, Talib Kweli has striven to “shine bright,” and with the release of Quality he shows that he is still a beacon in hip-hop.
Ever since the release of 1998’s Black Star with Mos Def, Kweli has received much attention and praise from fans and critics of hip-hop. Black Star set the standard for intelligent, socially conscious hip-hop and marked the beginning of a dynasty for the label, Rawkus Records. Over the next few years, Rawkus released a continuous string of excellent albums, including Kweli’s second collaborative effort with producer DJ Hi-Tek, 2000’s Reflection Eternal.
Quality is technically Kweli’s first solo release, and Hi-Tek’s name is notably absent from the production credits. Nonetheless, the production on the album is consistently stellar, thanks to beatmasters like Kanye West and Jay Dee. The beats have a more organic, instrumental sound, unlike the mechanical, mass-produced clank of popular rap.
But Kweli’s lyrics are what make Quality so captivating. Kweli’s voice has a sense of urgency that grabs the listener’s attention. His rhymes are flawless, thought-provoking and often uplifting. He covers a wide range of topics — philosophical, personal and political.
Kweli takes would-be rap cliches and reinvents them. Thuggish rappers often include superficial-sounding odes to their offspring on albums that are otherwise consumed by money and violence. In “Joy,” Kweli’s homage to fatherhood, he promises his children he will, “teach them the game so they know they position/ so they can grow and make decisions/ that change the world and break old traditions.”
Undoubtedly, Kweli is a far cry from the self-centered rappers prevalent on MTV. He carries an uplifting message for his people on tracks like “Get By,” a song about social struggle. Over a hair-raising piano beat, Kweli raps, “love is unconditional/ even when the condition is critical/ the livin’ is miserable/ your position is pivotal.”
Even after all the moralizing, however, Kweli still proves he is an incredible MC by any of hip-hop’s standards. In songs like “Rush,” a loud, rock-influenced track with battle-style vocals, and “Waiting For the DJ,” the album’s first single, Kweli’s raw talent is allowed to shine in its own right.
Hip-hop fans everywhere should be flocking to the record stores right now to buy Quality. An album that surpasses its title, Quality is one of the best albums of 2002 and will likely be remembered as one of the best hip-hop albums of this decade.