Right About Now
ooking at Talib Kweli's career arc over the past few years, I can't help but think he blew it. Ever since 1998's Black Star, when I was of the minority opinion that he quietly outshined Mos Def in terms of lyrical talent, if not charisma, I'd been rooting for him. 2000's underrated Train Of Thought ingratiated him to me further, as did the fact that he was one of the few conscious rappers at the time who was giving props to Ice Cube and Jay-Z in interviews. I never necessarily thought he had the tools for serious stardom, but he had the kind of open mind and varied lyrical content that could bridge the still gaping divide between commercial and backpacker rap.
And with "Get By," he actually did bridge that gap, at least a little, with a song that had a preachy and vaguely uplifting message but was still hot enough for radio to spin it and for Busta Rhymes and Jay-Z to jump on the remix. Of course, the producer of that song was Kanye West, who went on to bridge that gap more explicitly and much more successfully, labeling himself "the first rapper with a Benz and a backpack." Meanwhile, Kweli, had to deal with the downside of raised expectations for his next album after "Get By," as 2004's Beautiful Struggle was widely bootlegged, and then delayed, and then released to poor sales and worse reviews. Beautiful Struggle wasn't exactly the hopeless mess that many fed up backpackers and critics made it out to be (including David Drake here at Stylus), but there's definitely a palpable sense that he was dropping the ball.
With hopes of crossing over to the mainstream, or at the very least into New York's elite of middleground MCs, dashed, Kweli's first release since Beautiful Struggle is Right About Now. Awkwardly subtitled ďThe Official Sucka Free Mix CD,Ē it's not quite an album, full of new music and recent outtakes, and released with little advance promotion on indie powerhouse Koch Records, before Kweli moves onto his next major deal and proper album with Warner Music Group.
On the opening track, "Right About Now," Kweli establishes right off the bat his motivation for turning out a quickie mini-album outside the major label system: "I'm gonna give it to you before the bootleggers get a hold of it." He also airs out the entire saga of label changes that have plagued his career, from Rawkus's deal with MCA (referred to as "Music Cemetery of America") to being shuffled around to Geffen and mishandled by Interscope ("Jimmy Iovine never signed me, I just kinda ended up there"). The frank, terse way Kweli describes this turn of events comes off as both sour grapes and surprising honesty. And, because of the lush, rattling 88 Keys instrumental, it's also the early high point of the album.
The rest of Right About Now features few moments as revealing, as Kweli returns to his comfort zone of tracks that would've fit on any of his previous albums. Kweli admits in the liner notes that several tracks were outtakes from the Beautiful Struggle sessions, along with mixtape holdover "Supreme, Supreme" featuring Mos Def. But Beautiful Struggle's flirtations with superproducers like the Neptunes and Just Blaze are long gone, as longtime collaborators like Dave West and the late Jay Dilla return to hold down the granola indie-rap beats. The uniformity of the production aesthetic is so thick that even an appearance by MF Doom on "Fly That Knot" fails to stand out.
Standing out might be the biggest obstacle facing the bulk of Right About Now's 12 tracks. It's significantly shorter than Kweli's best album, Train of Thought, but has far fewer shifts in sound or mood to keep it interesting. Tracks like "Who Got It" and "Flash Gordon" feature thunderous beats and some of Kweli's most confident flows, but disappear into the background when all the tracks are lined up next to each other. And then there's "The Beast," on which Kweli is guilty of the crime he's most often accused of: political tracks on which he raps at his angriest but also his sloppiest, spilling words all over the beat and cramming syllables and losing track of the meter.
One of the tracks on Right About Now that does stand out, for better or worse, is "Ms. Hill," Kweli's overly earnest ode to Lauryn Hill. Over a melancholy piano loop and a sped up Ben Kweller sample that makes the alt-rock singer-songwriter sound even more like a chipmunk, Kweli expresses sympathy for L-Boogie's situation as an incredibly famous and respected artist who's become increasingly criticized for her erratic and reclusive behavior. Although Kweli goes out on a limb to back up a peer and ends up coming off as a defensive fan, one has to admire the passion with which he pleads her case.
Kweli reaffirms his underground values with some choice words for the commercial rap world throughout Right About Now. And although frequently the first conscious rapper to extend an olive branch to mainstream artists, he does criticize hip hop's status quo in songs like "Drugs, Basketball, & Rap." And in the liner notes accompanying the song, he takes shots at hip hop's current platinum elite: "It is not a coincidence that T.I. and Jeezy call where they hustle at the trap. Capitalism is the bait and niggas are donkeys chasing that carrot on a stick." Between comments like that and Young Jeezy sideman Slick Pulla's recent subliminal disses against Little Brother, a whole new commercial/conscious rap divide could be widening before our eyes right about now.