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LIVE: Talib Kweli, Park at Fourteenth, DC

by Marcus K. Dowling

(photo of Talib at the Manifesto Festival 2010 by Philippe Nyirimihigo. Please Support.) 

If skills sold, truth be told / I’d probably be, lyrically, Talib KweliJay-Z, “Moment of Clarity”

Talib Kweli’s brand of conscious emceeing would at first appearance not be the most congruous fit for a performance at Washington, DC’s Park at Fourteenth nightclub. It’s the kind of spot that attracts those obsessed with Rolex watches and champagne wishes, not those informed by beautiful struggles or gutter rainbows. However, it’s a testament to the successfully realized aspirations of those who were drawn to hip hop during Kweli’s most active era of emceeing that the booking made sense. Talib Kweli hasn’t traded in baggy jeans, sneakers and fitted caps for tailored suits, but, from the jam packed crowd, many in his original fan base have. In a performance that was an odd remembrance of things past for a large portion of the crowd in attendance, Kweli’s Beny Blaq Entertainment promoted set on Friday night at Park at 14th showcased the end game of hip hop’s most mainstream era.

Talib Kweli worked with a slew of the most motivated performers of hip hop in the first decade of the 21st century. From rapping alongside Mos Def as Black Star on their phenomenal eponymous 1998 debut to slaying Kanye West’s staccato percussion marvel “Get By” from 2002’s Quality, he, alongside those performers set a untouchable standard for the art of earnest emceeing. On his latest debut independent release Gutter Rainbows, he samples Jay-Z’s famous Kweli praising line regarding the mainstream’s distaste for pure lyricism from “Moment of Clarity.” Unlike Jigga, he’s a rare artist who has not altered his dependency upon his supreme lyrical gift to excel. On Friday night, that gift was in typical form, as in starting from Mos Def’s “Umi Says” to ending with “Get By,” and winding through hits like the incredibly frenetic, Fugees “Vocab” hook sampling “Definition,” and hitting upon his latest material, it was a celebration of one of the golden eras of hip hop lyricism.

Jiggy nightclubs are an intriguing realm for rap music. As hip hop has crossed over into a more moneyed class of American society, the necessity for heavy percussion, body jacking breaks, and intensely philosophical or intellectual lyricism has waned considerably. Billboard’s pop charts and nightclub playlists clearly show that there is a home for hook friendly and elegantly melodic tunes. In places where $10 martinis accompany bohemian rhapsodies, “real rappers” doing “real rap” often don’t exist. Many in the crowd at Park on Friday night came up in a rap universe where smoky clubs, street corners, and freestyle ciphers decided who topped the charts. Now, these decisions are made over conference tables in air conditioned board rooms. Talib Kweli performed at Park at Fourteenth. Hip hop done changed.