For those rappers whose long-established reputation precedes them as much as that of Talib Kweli, there is almost a tendency to expect disappointment. Could this guy really still be playing a role as significant as that which he played in the late 90’s duo Black Star? The answer was, of course, a resounding ‘yes’.
Obviously he was late, but not in a negligent way, in a cool way that says ‘I’m not in a hurry, but you guys still mean something to me as fans’. It was this respectful street-chic confidence and laid back ambience which put us at ease and ready to hear some musical realness. True to the importance of his part in the game of rap, Kweli displayed a sought-after ability to maintain the balance between the gritty sounds of New York and the fluid, Afro-centric verse for which he is so famous. Poetry spilled out onto the microphone with brief interjections of skilled freestyle a cappella, and fans were reminded of a 90s renaissance era of Hip-Hop that captured the sounds and the struggle of the street in a way the world could begin to understand. And the show wasn’t just some nostalgic throwback for the 35 year old heads in the audience. Talib’s performance had a freshness about it which reflected the importance of his diverse style as one which can bridge the gap between the Old School and newer kinds of Hip-Hop; his flow was tight, his soul was alive, and his confidence was that which belongs to an unmistakable contributor to the realm of rap.
Yet the performance was not restricted to Talib reciting rhymes. At one point the DJ broke up Kweli’s flow with some well received Reggae classics from Dawn Penn and the Marleys. Topically, he also took the time - though not too much time - to flag the Michael Brown shooting and to talk about the lives of African Americans. It was a refreshing moment in the set to see an artist of such serious standing using his influence consciously. All this worked to establish Talib not as some aloof, untouchable guru of the rap world, but as a regular guy with an indubitably phenomenal talent.
We began to speculate: as humankind ploughs head first into the Trap-filled 21st Century, what might Kweli’s performance tell us about the future of Hip-Hop on this side of the pond? Surely, the turnout of what seemed to be a British Hip Hop intelligentsia in their flat-caps and Run DMC-style thick-framed glasses was a confirmation of the UK’s love and appreciation of Hip-Hop’s old school veterans like Kweli. Or perhaps the Reggae interludes represent the recognition of a saturated audience who now simply respect the classics because they are classics. Certainly, there is something about the UK cherishing older rap music because it helps to distinguish ourselves from the modernising Hip-Hop scene in the USA, and this is totally natural given that we received the genre wholly second hand from a culture looking for something new. It seems rap fans are ever increasingly asked to take a side; do you identify with the traditional Hip-Hop, and indeed African American, values of love, survival and family? Or are you more for rappers who rhyme the N-word with the N-word and preach the ‘dream’ of the all-American culture tank? Either way, Talib Kweli is unmistakably a flagship in the Hip-Hop armada.
Words: Rowan Cassels Brown