October 7, 2004

On the Banks of the Mainstream

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It’s hard to call being a prominent artist and an underground Hip-Hop legend a struggle. But the struggle of Kweli’s mission has always been toeing the wire between relevance and accessibility. Uncommonly precocious, Kweli has always played the role of consummate truth-bearer, carrying the torch into the dark recesses of material insanity and ghetto squalls. And no one could articulate it better than Kweli himself, as he spits on “I Try” from his latest effort, The Beautiful Struggle: “The label want a song about a bubbly life/ I have trouble trying to write some shit that bang in the blub through the night/ While people suffer tonight/ Lord knows I try.”

That is precisely the conflict of The Beautiful Struggle — Kweli’s seeming want for acceptance vying against his unwillingness to become disposable. The Struggle wants to be a club staple and acutely sensitive to human suffering at the same time. Maybe it’s a sign of the times, but danceable relevance seems like a contradictory phantasm of an ideal.

But that’s not to say that Kweli doesn’t try. If Quality was Kweli’s soapbox, The Beautiful Struggle is his beat box. Taking Kanye West’s template for The College Dropout of slick beats and quasi-intellectual rhymes, Kweli has an all-star team of producers in tow, including West himself, the Neptunes, Just Blaze, and Kweli’s lesser known former partner, Hi-Tek. It seems blithely ironic, however, that the songs glazed in the gloss of West, the Neptunes, and Just Blaze are the album’s worst and most disgraceful tracks.

“Going Hard,” the album’s opener, is a symphonic whirlwind of pianos and guitars that lurch behind Kweli blasting bling culture and tearing into child labor atrocities in Siera Leone. It’s followed by “Back Up Offa Me,” containing the album’s most addictive hook. But beyond this is the point at which the Neptunes and company hi-jack this soaring album and begin it’s decent toward earth. “Broken Glass,” the Neptunes regrettable contribution, uses an echoing, metallic conga beat now in it’s 200th variation. Even worse, “We Know” is an impotent attempt at a love song, complete with a sterile guitar riff and all the charms of a roadside motel room with a heart-shaped Jacuzzi and pink Andr