After the critical and commercial disappointment of his second solo album, 2004′s The Beautiful Struggle, many questioned Talib Kweli’s place in the music business. After the Kanye West-produced “Get By” became the biggest hit of his career in 2002, the Black Star MC’s follow-up album was panned for veering too far away from his underground roots. To some, it seemed as if Kweli’s decade-long career was on a downward spiral. But a few weeks ago, the Brooklyn native silenced the cynics by debuting at number two on the Billboard chart with his new album, Eardrum, the first release on his new deal with the Warner Music Group. To everyone’s surprise, Kweli even outsold Swizz Beatz’s heavily-promoted One Man Band Man, which debuted the same week. The upset proved Talib’s career was alive and kicking. While on the road promoting Eardrum, XXLMag.com caught up with Kweli to discuss his strong Billboard debut, beating Swizzy in sales and finding solace in proving the haters wrong.
How did it feel to debut at number two on the Billboard chart with Eardrum?
It felt good, but it’s tempered. It’s not my highest selling debut—that would be The Beautiful Struggle—but it’s my highest chart position. But the whole industry is down. So I’m really happy that even though record sales are slowing down, my record sales have remained consistent. And because my record sales remain consistent in an industry that’s slowing down, my chart position goes up.
Were you surprised you outsold Swizz Beatz?
Honestly, I wasn’t surprised at all. I had no idea what Swizzy’s numbers would be, but my numbers came as no surprise because I was able to accurately project [them]. I thought I was going to sell around 60 thousand and I sold about 61 thousand. It’s because I go on tour. Swizz Beatz has an incredible album [One Man Band Man]. I really enjoy [it]. And he has huge radio singles, at least in the New York area. I don’t know how big his records were outside of New York. Plus, Swizz Beatz is a very rich man. He was on the Forbes list [of “Hip-Hop Cash Kings”] and he don’t have to tour. His money is made in a studio. My money is made on the road. So sometimes because my money is made on the road, it’s tough for the industry to gauge.
Do you feel vindicated at all?
Yeah, I feel like consistency is king and the product is king. Say what you wanna say, people have all types of criticism, but they stay talking about me. Just before I got on the phone with you, I read somebody criticizing my lyrics from “Brown Skin Lady” and how wack my lyrics were and how I must never get no ass. I’m like, “Really?” Is that what you really think? Like, you’re really on a blog talking about I’m not getting no ass for lyrics over 10 years ago when I probably…never mind. I’m about to get rude and vulgar, which I don’t want to do. But, yeah, people will be way off base with what they think my life be like.
It’s interesting that The Beautiful Struggle opened with your best numbers, but people consider that album a disappointment.
Yeah, when I heard Kanye [West] repeat 50 [Cent’s] line in “Good Life” — “50 told me, go ‘head, switch the style up/And if they hate, then let ‘em hate and watch the money pile up.” That line resonated with me. When I heard Kanye’s album [Graduation], it’s a departure from the first album, College Dropout. There’s not as many soul samples, there’s less skits, it’s a little more grown up and more about how his life is now, as opposed to how his life was when he was in the crib making beats. There’s a lot of rock and pop influences on that album. And when I heard it, I was like, “Wow, this is what I was trying to achieve with Beautiful Struggle.” Maybe I failed at achieving it, maybe I failed miserably, or maybe they just weren’t ready for it. That remains to be seen. But it’s a testament to knowing what my career needs as opposed to listening to the fans. [The Beautiful Struggle] has some real beautiful things on there. It allowed me to tour with Kanye, Black Eyed Peas [and the] Beastie Boys. So I’m very happy with that album, regardless of what some fan that has a blog has to say.
It’s interesting to see artists such as UGK, Common and Kanye West debut at No. 1 on the Billboard chart, especially in a time when ringtone artists are supposed to be dominant. What do you think that says about the industry?
I think when you look at all those artists, the consistent thing is those fans are going to be there regardless of what’s going on with the trends in the music business. It’s very hard and not fair for an artist that’s coming out with a record that does well with ringtones, but the record company is so concerned about their bottom line that they feel like they’ve made their money selling ringtones [and] they don’t make sure this artist connects with his fans. So [the artist] comes out thinking he’s about to have this kind of career. He don’t get out on the road, there’s no A&Ring going on, there’s no artistic grooming. Motown [Records], say what you wanna say about Berry Gordy, [but] he had physical trainers, musical trainers [and] people set up to support the artist. That stuff doesn’t exist anymore.
On “NY Weather Report,” you say, “Too many equate success with imitating these crackers.” Can you elaborate on the meaning behind that line?
You have a lot of white hip-hop fans who get mad at groups like dead prez or Immortal Technique for using the word cracker, like we shouldn’t listen to that or they are racist for saying something like that. But these are the same fans that will go and buy a Redman or Ghostface album and think it’s the greatest thing on earth. Which they are—I love both Ghostface and Redman—but my point in saying that is, if you can go and buy an album and listen to a rapper say, “Nigga, nigga, nigga,” then you should also be prepared to listen to some “crackers” too.
Spin Magazine criticized Eardrum because of your voice, stating, “Though Kweli can’t change his voice he was born with, he needs to figure out how to make it as compelling as his material.” What’s your reaction to Spin’s review?
Yeah, fuck Spin Magazine. They can all kiss my ass. To be honest with you, man, if you look at Spin’s history—and I really hope you print this—they’ve always shitted on me from the first Black Star cover when they had me and Mos [Def] behind podiums, even though I protested that. Spin Magazine only gives white rappers good reviews. If you’re a white rapper, or somebody the hipsters like, then they’re fucking with you. If they’re someone who talks about the conditions going on in the world and talks passionately about your community…I really feel like they’re racist because they’ve done nothing but show me a lot of hate throughout my career, so fuck ‘em. That was something I felt in my gut until I read this review, because they didn’t talk about the music at all. The review was like, I just don’t like the guy as a person and I never will, so I’m a give him two stars.
Common is an artist who’s elevated his celebrity outside of music, through acting. Have you thought about getting your chops up?
Well, I did acting when I was younger. That’s what I went to college for. I went to TISCH NYU for it and I studied experimental theater. So that’s an area I’m very well versed in: acting, techniques of film and stuff like that. I’ve gone on many auditions, but I haven’t really put my heart into it. Common moved out to Los Angeles and didn’t make a record for a year and instead took acting lessons and aggressively pursued it. And I don’t know if I’m at the point in my career where I wanna do that. I think that’s something that he wanted to do and it paid off for him. But what I think paid off for me is really honing my craft and mastering the rhyme. Common got himself more celebrity from acting, which is great for all of us. It makes all of us look bigger. But it also makes my position more clear to me. If Common is getting more celebrity from acting, just like Mos [Def], Andre  and Tariq [Black Thought], who is about to do a film this year, that means the reason I’m debuting at number two is strictly because of the rhymes—nothing else, there are no frills. And that’s something for me to be proud of.