Throughout his nearly decade-long career, Talib Kweli has been dogged by suggestions of what he should change about his music. If he would just “tweak” this or “alter” that, then the perennial underdog could become a bona fide star. After three lyrically intense albums with political undertones, however, the Brooklyn MC sticks to his guns with Ear Drum, the first release from his freshly minted Blacksmith label.
Kweli knows his shortcomings, but like a rebellious child, he does what he wants to anyway. The stubborn lyricist acknowledges this fact on the easygoing “Electrify,” where he outlines his own flaws (“You should rap on beat/You should rap more street/And never, ever get your mack on, please”). Failing to heed the final critique results in the jazzy “In the Mood,” where Talib awkwardly tries to set a scene of seduction. Another slipup is the piano-drenched “Star.” Featuring Musiq’s crooning on the hook, the DJ Khalil–produced track comes off cliché and a bit too self-righteous for its own good.
Talib fares better when he channels the feel of 2002’s mini–breakout hit “Get By” on the choir-backed “Hostile Gospel.” Supported by Just Blaze’s moody keys and strings, he successfully laments society’s ills without sounding stale (“Look up, the clouds is ominous/We got maybe 10 years left, say meteorologists/Shit, we still waitin’ for the Congress to acknowledge this”). The flashback effect continues with the Jean Grae–featured “Say Something,” where will.i.am uses the same opening horn sample of the Lords of the Underground’s “Funky Child.” A more notable, albeit unexpected, collaboration comes on the bluesy “Country Cousins,” which finds Kweli and UGK trading bars about their mutual respect for each other’s region.
Unlike 2004’s The Beautiful Struggle, which clumsily juxtaposed grungy backpack beats with basic mainstream medleys, Ear Drum is a more sonically cohesive endeavor. Having more fun with the music and ignoring his critics, Talib proves that, sometimes, the only one worth listening to is yourself. —DEMETRIA LUCAS