When underground New York rapper Talib Kweli first hooked up with fellow MC Mos Def and producer Hi-Tek to form Black Star in the late '90s, it would have been laughable to suggest that, nearly a decade later, Mos Def would be best known for supporting roles in Hollywood flicks and that a solo Kweli record would feature an appearance by Justin Timberlake.
Nevertheless, here we are in 2007, and Kweli's new disc — Eardrum, released last week on the man's very own label, Blacksmith — does indeed feature an appearance from the former *NSYNCer. Titled "The Nature," the track is a rather straightforward R&B/hip-hop crossover stab, with Timberlake on the hook and in the producer's chair. Timberlake is only one of several A-listers called in to work on Eardrum. Black Eyed Peas kid-rap impresario Will.I.Am stops by for a pair of tracks; Kanye West lends a beat and some verses to one song; even Norah fricking Jones stops by, to sing a surprising sultry chorus on "Soon the New Day."
Fortunately, Kweli's flow is as buttery as ever, his lyrics authoritative enough that he doesn't get lost amid all the Rolodex shuffling. He even does a more-than-passable version of a Dirty South flow on "Country Cousins," trading bars with UGK and Raheem DeVaughn.
At such moments, it's easy to get lost in Kweli's vision, but these a-ha instances are simply spread out too thinly. Eardrum suffers from an exceptionally long running time. (Shocking on a rap album, I know.) The disc is also a bit one-dimensional beat-wise. Like Common on his recent release, Finding Forever, Kweli embraces a mellow, almost adult-contemporary vibe. And while the move toward laid-back beats is understandable (Kweli is 31, after all), Eardrum lacks the variety and edge that made his one-time team-up with Mos Def and Hi-Tek such an instant classic nine years ago.
3 stars —Cooper Levey-Baker
It's a shame this album didn't come out two months earlier. It would've been the party record of the summer. Kala has all the neon-funk energy of its predecessor, 2005's Arular, with an added kick. M.I.A. and co-producer Switch have thickened the machine-gun 808 beats of Arular with fuzzed-out synths, Afro-beat samples and animal screeches. Opener "Bamboo Banga" bridges the gap between Arular and M.I.A.'s new, more diverse sound. Still in revolutionary mode, she shouts the cryptic chant, "I'm knockin' on the door of your Hummer, Hummer," like an insurgent protesting a foreign presence. The most striking quality of Kala is its weird factor. "Jimmy" sounds like the cross between Françoise Hardy and a Daft Punk robot. On the slow-burner "20 Dollar," M.I.A. combines the "Blue Monday" bass line with the chorus of "Where Is My Mind?" while satirizing the influence of Western pop culture in Africa ("Price of livin' in a shanty town is high/ but we still like T.I."). If more hip-hop artists took Kala-like chances, the world would be a better place. 4.5 stars —Corey Licht
Cornel West, the Princeton University professor and historian celebrated for books such as Race Matters, is an unlikely candidate to make a rap and R&B album. But Never Forget is actually his second disc. The first, 2002's Sketches of My Culture, relied on his spoken-word vignettes; this one gathers together earnest contributions from Jill Scott, Talib Kweli, Andre 3000, Killer Mike and many others. The stars offer their most political- and social-minded tracks — Prince's casually funky "Dear Mr. Man" is a highlight. Awkwardly, Dr. West drops in the middle of each to give some sort of speech, as if he were the ivory-tower version of Funkmaster Flex. Never Forget often sounds like an audio book instead of a collection of songs. For all its didacticism, however, Never Forget can potentially serve as a bridge for older generations who underestimate the power of modern urban music. 3 stars —Mosi Reeves