Talib Kweli’s show last Sunday at Toad’s was beating proof that hip-hop is the music of currency. His fire-throated rhymes spoke directly to the audience. Where most rappers struggle to bring their music to life in live performance, Kweli made hip-hop anew in the context of the concert.
Kweli proved that rap thrives as a performance art when it incorporates immediacy and organic improvisation. This is traditionally accomplished through freestyling, which often lacks the kind of intellectualism that makes Kweli’s rhymes interesting. So instead of freestyling with words, Kweli found other ways to incorporate improvisation into his performance.
Kweli infused the flair of freestyle into his freedom of melody and rhythm. Instead of improvising words, Kweli found spontaneity in shifting the timbre and tones of his voice. There were the low-belly gruffness, the breathless prayer, the violent assertion and the pleading croon. These multitudes in Kweli’s voice created a call and response that recalled a Whitmanesque self-conversation.
Kweli’s voice brings rap closer to dialogue and singing. Like his frequent partner, Mos Def, Kweli takes rap out of the percussive and into the melodic. Some of his voices are reminiscent of Ghost Faced Killer, who raps with a rare openness that belies the traditional chauvinism of the MC. Kweli uses breathlessness to expose a vulnerability that’s rare in hip-hop today.
His timing also served to distinguish the live performance from his records. Like the King of Cool himself, Kweli uses spaces and their pressure to fill his rhymes with force. It’s apparent that Kweli learned much from the jazz singers that he sampled. Nina Simone was all up in his mix. Kweli left the stage to the banshee wails of Simone’s “Sinnerman.”
The rest of the show at Toad’s featured an array of anthems from throughout Kweli’s history bank. He dropped songs from all his albums, starting with his 1998 “Blackstar” debut all the way to his brand-new joint, “Beautiful Struggle Advance.” On songs like “Respiration” and “Get By,” Kweli used creative inflections to reinterpret the rhymes of his contemporaries, Kanye West, Mos Def, and Common.
Kweli’s set even included samples Michael Jackson and the Beatles. With the lights low and his sound coming through unusually clearly, Kweli performed a stunning rendition of “Eleanor Rigby (All the Lonely People).” Though Kweli stays constantly in touch with the times, he also reflects a humble homage to his predecessors, whether they’re from Africa or Liverpool. Look for Kweli’s brand-new release, “Beautiful Struggle Advance,” along with a host of other new music invoking the hip-hop muse. A new CD by African-born vocalist Zap Mama also features Kweli alongside Quest Love from The Roots.
Rappers evolved with the voice of the city, the toughness of delivery and strife. The directness of delivery was the hallmark of this early urban voice. Kweli represents an evolution to a hip-hop voice whose melodic expressions of longing and vulnerability transcend the mask of the urban gangster.
Unlike any rapper today, Talib Kweli and Mos Def take this urban-rooted music and turn it back upon itself. Unlike Kweli and Mos Def, the typical rapper speaks with a confidence that belies the wisdom that comes from self-criticism. This competitive chauvinism is over-compensating. In Kweli’s voice, you can hear the self-reflection of a person who struggles to be genuine, especially in an industry ruled by materialists. Kweli’s recitation of the song “Respiration” is the perfect example of how the city is born anew in his rhymes: “I can feel the city breathing, chest heaving against the flesh of the evening.”