“If skills sold, truth be told/ I’d probably be, lyrically, Talib Kweli.” - Jay-Z “Moment of Clarity”
For the ignorant hip-hop listener, hearing Jigga show his praises for fellow Brooklyn native Talib Kweli may have been the first time Kweli’s near-flawless lyrical abilities were made crystal clear. A veteran behind the microphone, Kweli has gone from a buzz-worthy member of Black Star (alongside Mos Def) to becoming one of the most respected MCs in the game today.
With Black Star and his collaborative effort with Hi-Tek, titled Reflection Eternal, hailed by many as classic records, anticipation was extremely high earlier this year for his latest offering, The Beautiful Struggle. Unfortunately, the record suffered a fate similar to Jean Grae’s recent Jeanius project, being leaked to the Internet prematurely. Kweli has healed from those scars nicely, however, and is ready to release the official version of The Beautiful Struggle. Featuring guest shots from Common, Jean Grae, Mary J. Blige, and Anthony Hamilton, the album is a fitting showcase for Kweli’s well-rounded skills.
Rather than approach him with generic questions such as, “What makes this album hot?,” or “What are you bringing to the game in 2004?,” this interview allows Kweli to break down several of The Beautiful Struggle’s more notable selections.
Kweli: With this album, I just kind of let the beats decide where I was going for each song. I heard the track from Charlemagne, and the hook came to me first. The beat sounded like some shit you would hear at a club or something. Like a night club that I perform at; not one that DJs would spin at. I wrote the first verse right then, but the second verse I already had. A lot of people call that second verse “Beef,” because I had performed that on the Dave Chappelle show with Mos Def, and people gave it its own name. That was a verse that I had for this song I had done, but I really didn’t like the beat for it. Corey Smith, my manager, actually came up with the part that Res is singing. That’s her singing the “Dear Father” part.
Kweli: I had been on tour with Pharrell a couple of times, for the Sprite tours. We always talked about working together, in passing. Once the album got leaked and downloaded, I wanted to get some more beats to make new songs, and The Neptunes was the production team that I went to. When I ran into Pharrell in Los Angeles, he said, “I have this beat that is perfect for you.” When people tell me that, it’s usually not the beat I’m looking for. He played me that beat, though, and I said, “Yeah, that beat really would work well on my album.” I originally just wrote a straight-ahead, regular rhyme for that song. We already decided to call the song “Broken Glass,” because the beat sounds like glass breaking, but then Pharrell told me I should write a story to it. So, I wrote a story, and that’s how we got that song.
“Around My Way” featuring John Legend
Kweli: Charlemagne produced that, and originally, his homeboy came up with the hook and was singing on it. At first, I was trying to get Sting on the hook. We actually linked up with Sting, like we went to his peoples. Unfortunately, the people at the label, who were going to get us in touch with Sting, never got him a copy of the track. When we linked up with him, that’s how we got the idea for the song he did with Twista. Originally it was Res and I on that song. But anyway, after all that, I sat down and asked myself, “Who would be good on this chorus?” I have known John Legend for some years, and, you know, he has been fucking with Kanye West lately. I had been doing shows with John recently, and I thought his voice would sound perfect on it. I thought that it might actually be better than Sting’s. No disrespect to Sting, of course, cuz he is a master. For what that song needed, though, I think John brought it to another level. He also played keys on it.
“Ghetto Show” featuring Common and Anthony Hamilton
Kweli: Dave West produced that. I knew I wanted to have Common on this album, and when I heard that beat, I knew that was the one Common should be on. I had already came up with album name, The Beautiful Struggle. So, that was where my head was at, in terms of songs. Dave West and I talked about it. I wanted to have a real soulful, but still ghetto, hook for the song. I had been listening to Anthony Hamilton’s album, and I think it is incredible. I really feel what Anthony has been doing. I wanted to get him on the album, too, and I figured that was the song he could be on. I had a lot of fun with that song.
“Black Girl Pain” featuring Jean Grae
Kweli: Midi Mafia did that beat, and as soon as I heard it, it sounded like Black girl pain to me. It sounded like Black girl pain, but in reverse, like the actual sounds of the track. I wanted to write a song about that. I didn’t know how I could write a song from the pain perspective of a Black girl. So, I decided to write about my daughter, and write about how I would describe her to somebody that doesn’t know her. There is a lot of truth and emotion behind that record. Jean Grae is probably one of my favorite MCs ever, and I felt like if anybody could convey Black girl pain on that track, she could. She talks about some personal things on it, which I thought was interesting. People may not get what she’s talking about. Her family is from South Africa, and she talks about those experiences. On the hook, there is the 8-year-old girl Jamia Simone Nash and her little sister, Olivia. They won on the Apollo a bunch of times. Tiffany Mynon, one of my singers, is on it, and Yummy, this girl who sings for De La Soul, is also on it. Basically, that song is a dedication to Black women everywhere, and the struggles they have to go through.
“Work It Out”
Kweli: My album was basically done, and I was on tour with MF Doom. I had brought an engineer with me, and we had set up some equipment in the back of the bus. I had seen Hi-Tek, and he gave me a beat CD. From it, I had been playing that beat over and over again. One day on the bus, I just wrote that song. I think we were in Texas, and we stayed dup all night recording that song. I like the energy of that track, and I like how it feels. It feels like it keeps coming back around, and I wanted to write a rhyme style that fit it. I didn’t want it to be real abstract. I wanted to keep it as something that I felt people could relate to.
“Never Been In Love”
Kweli: That’s another one that happened after the original album got downloaded. I went to producers like Just Blaze, The Neptunes, and Organized Noise. I actually did a song with Organized Noise, but it didn’t make the album. I’ll probably B-Side it. Anyway, Just Blaze played me a bunch of tracks one day, when I was hanging out with him and Saigon. He played that track, and I was like, “That’s hot.” It didn’t blow me away at first, but I liked it. He was like, “I already played that track for 50 Cent, and he really liked that track, too.” Then, we decided to do something with it. I wrote that song over the course of two days, just sitting around in the studio. There’s actually a tribute to Hi-Tek at the end of it, by Just Blaze. Just had said that “2,000 Seasons” was the first track he had from me. He’s a real big fan of Hi-Tek. So, that was like a little inside tribute that he did.
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