Just before his second solo album came out in 2004 Talib Kweli got onstage at a tiny New York club and previewed a few jams. The Brooklyn rapper slayed. In fact, it seemed crazy that he was still a small enough star to perform there. But then The Beautiful Struggle dropped, and there were no hits to rival 2002’s Kanye-graced “Get By.” Despite shout-outs from Jay-Z, another Kweli project fell into the cracks between commercial and indie rap.
On Right About Now, the brainy one delivers more stylistic stew, but his agile attack still lacks Jigga’s precision, 50’s swagger, or Kanye’s cocky confessionalism. The thump and plinked arpeggios on “Who Got It” won’t have you “automatically pressin’ rewind,” as Kweli promises. Better for the bashment is the funked “Fly That Knot,” on which the fears he expresses are effectively tweaked by guest MF Doom, who probably dreams in Yahtzee/Nazi rhyme schemes.
Though he’s got a timely dis on “Supreme Supreme” about rappers “livin’ the movie,” when “the audience is walkin’ out,” Kweli has a richer flow over the tough piano vamp of “The Beast,” where he and pal Papoose cop to grubbier thoughts. When, on the video-gamey “Flash Gordon,” Kweli boasts of a “pain in my voice like Sarah Vaughan,” the line reminds you that Kweli actually doesn’t convey pain as well as, say, Nas. He does feel it, though, and when that comes through — like on “Ms. Hill,” his letter to Lauryn Hill — he’s at his best. The thrust is raw behind his lament “She ain’t heavy / I’m a brother / And I wished that I could pick up the load / But no.” And you feel his beautiful struggle when the sad, sped-up hook questions the power of verbiage itself: “There are no words / You should say.”
See also: Black Star, Black Star (Rawkus, 1998)