As the medium of print seems to be slowly falling out favor in the 21st century, I have to admire hip-hop for what it is: sonic poetry. It is accessible, lyrical – by definition, I suppose – and it makes the beats and rhythms of poetry more vivid.
Even in the internet age of popular musical amateurism – in which college students in basements can churn out static-laden vocals over stale beats – there are still dedicated artists and true poets who dedicate themselves to the craft of hip-hop.
And, of course, Talib Kweli is one of the true hip-hop legends.
That is why I was so excited to see him perform live. Kweli’s main strength lies in the soundscape portraits he paints. It’s hard to believe that he can string together the dense lines of lyrics the way he does. Listening to his rhymes is the audial equivalent of a watching a Rube Goldberg contraption: words and phrases blend in unexpected and seemingly inconceivable ways that lead to a beautiful ending that leaves you stunned about the entire process. His songs are heady, cerebral and deeply personal.
The first opening act was the homegrown Milwaukee DJs from "True Skool." It is hard not to admire their dedication to hip-hop as they still spin vinyl records on old-school turn tables. The second act was "Space Invadas." They weren’t bad, but, to be honest, they weren’t terribly memorable.
But the final opening act, "K’Valentine," nearly stole the show. She has a voice similar to that of Nicky Minaj, but her lyrics were deadly serious, fiercely feminist and presented with stunning flow. Announcing herself as a Chicago native who was "anti-Chiraq" (a nickname combining "Chicago" and "Iraq" to suggest similar levels of gun violence in both), she launched into a lyrical tirade against the city’s violence that literally made me shiver.
After that power performance, I stood waiting for Kweli near the front of the stage. The ballroom was buzzing with excitement and the DJ was hyping up the crowd. It seemed like a surprisingly light attendance at the Turner Hall Ballroom. Maybe I am still used to the crushing density of Summerfest crowds, but I was surprised by how there seemed to be empty space around me. I was about four rows of people from the front of the stage, and – with the exception of the occasional dancing drunk bumping into me – it felt like I could walk in a semi-circle around the stage without much issue.
Then Kweli took the stage, and the crowd blew up. He jumped into the first three songs, after each carefully asking for the vocal and beat levels to be adjusted perfectly to his liking. His set drew on all eras of his career. He played "KOS (Determination)" from his time collaborating with "Mos Def" – now "Yasiin Bey" – in the group Black Star. He gave a brief preview of music from his upcoming collaboration as "Indie 500" with "Pharoahe Monch" and "9th Wonder." Of course, one of the final songs was the classic "Get By" from his inaugural solo album "Quality."
He even drew on music before his career, and this highlights how the best qualities of the concert were also its worst. Kweli brought a love for music, hip-hop and his craft to the performance, and he attempted to personalize his hip-hop passion to the audience. He did this by freestyling to the Beatles’ song "Eleanor Rigby" and by bringing back "K’Valentine" and "Space Invadaz" to spit during his encore. But while it was clear that he brought energy to the performance, he included one artistic choice that I don’t know if I can fully support.
He decided to play a few other favorite tracks from old-school artists – including "Welcome to Jamrock" -- but for me this only detracted from the natural flow of the concert. It did add a fun touch to the performance, but it also made the show feel much less like it was a Talib Kweli concert than a DJ set, much like "True Skool." It was frustrating to hear songs I can hear on the radio rather than listen to the deep, personal stories that Kweli was there to perform.
Still, during the encore, the classy Kweli invited both Space Invadas and K’Valentine back onto the stage for a final round of freestyling that was mind-bendingly fun, and he capped off the encore with a call and response that had the entire audience shouting and jamming to the music.
And so I frame his performance as this: just as he shares his music, Kweli wants to let the DJ, opening acts and old-school artists share their music with audience. There’s no reason why all these elements can’t be combined into the collective experience of a concert. Kweli loves hip-hop. And maybe the best part of hip-hop is sharing the beats, music and poetry that all artists – including, the aspiring college students on computers – love to create.