While the idea of struggle is ingrained into the hip-hop psyche, few seem to take as much joy from it as Talib Kweli. Whether the Brooklyn MC is referring to downloaders leaking demos of his upcoming aptly entitled album, Beautiful Struggle, onto the Web or recounting his long march from the cellars of underground rap to the hallowed halls of the TRL set, Kweli constantly refers to the "struggle." Yet unlike many of his hardened, nihilistic hip-hop peers, Kweli relishes the difficulties and understands that victory and adversity go hand in hand. As he puts it, "You can't have the celebration if you don't have the struggle."
For Kweli, the struggle is all about self-determination, and hip-hop has been a galvanizing force in that fight. Not just the music, but the hip-hop business. And aside from his adopting a broader and more commercially viable sound, Kweli's ideology has loosened over the years, from a stringent, proletarian stance to one that grants that an entrepreneurial spirit can bring about social empowerment. "The more that I'm in the business, the more blessed that I am," he says. "We found a way to parlay this into making money for ourselves. More than any generation before us, and there's a lot to be said about that."
Although Kweli has honed his craft as well as his ideology over the years, he has always been a preternaturally gifted MC. His rhymes have always been packed with alliteration, internal rhyme and short, declarative statements thick with political rhetoric and exhortations for his peers to step up their game. "Consider me the entity within the industry without a history / of spittin' the epitome of stupidity -- livin' my life / expressin' my liberty, it gotta be done properly," Kweli rhymed on "Definition," the quintessential track from his days in Black Star.
As opposed to his former partner-in-rhyme Mos Def, Kweli agonizes over the nuances of his rhymes, revising and revisiting them continuously. "The music and the rhymes come naturally for him and he doesn't even think about it, where I'm the type of artist where I have to think it through," Kweli says.
While this poetic premeditation occasionally makes Kweli's vocal cadence sound stilted, it also gives his rhymes a thematic density and subtlety that reward subsequent listenings. For instance, as on "Thieves in the Night," Kweli can critique the black community and add in the all-important context. "Waitin' on someone to pity us / While we findin' beauty in the hideous," he raps, before concluding: "The wounds of slaves in cotton fields that never heal / What's the deal?"
Some die-hards complain that he has sold out, but Kweli sees things differently: "I'm far from the mainstream," he says, before returning to his favorite theme. "Technically, I haven't sold a gold album yet, and I'm still underground. [So] even though my fans have been following me for years, and other rappers say they see me on television programs, the perception is that I'm mainstream, but it's really still a struggle." -- Sam Chennault
With MF Doom, Wednesday, June 9, at Numbers, 300 Westheimer, 713-526-6551.
I always suspected that by simply having been born male, I was somehow getting the short end of the stick at rock shows. No matter how much I enjoyed a given concert, I found myself vaguely envying the transported expressions of women in the audience, many of whom seemed to be having out-of-body experiences, giving off that transcendental, screaming, fainting, Elvis-has-not-left-the-building vibe. As a dedicated rock and roller, I couldn't help feeling an entire dimension was missing from my experience.
But then I saw Shannon Wright. A petite, unassuming woman, Wright is quite simply one of the greatest rock performers I have ever witnessed. Her guitar playing is huge, aggressive, hypnotic, calling to mind both Jimi Hendrix and Gang of Four's Andy Gill without sounding like either one. Her sheer physicality on stage is transcendent, unpredictable and emotionally shattering. By the time she left the stage that night I found myself hovering over my body, entirely knock-kneed for the first time in more than 20 years of attending rock concerts.
Over the Sun, her new disc, is a harsh, moody, anxiety-filled record engineered with maximum lack of forgiveness by Steve Albini. Claustrophobic, markedly non-pop songs like "You'll Be the Death" and "With Closed Eyes" showcase Wright's darting, pleading voice as she alternates between galvanizing guitar and lilting piano with expert rhythmic help from drummer Christina Files. Wright has spent a large chunk of the last few years opening for acts like Nick Cave, Sleater-Kinney and Low, but her destiny is clearly not as a supporting player. She is one of those rare artists who seem to make music not as a choice but out of a violent, deep-rooted need. -- Scott Faingold
Thursday, June 3, at DiverseWorks, 1117 East Freeway, 713-223-8346.
Weapons of Mic Destruction
Still holding out hope they'll find those pesky WMDs? While Saddam's hoard may never be discovered, you'll uncover plenty here at this local showcase of East Coast hip-hop legends. The Mash Out Posse (Lil' Fame and Billy Danze) of Brooklyn's infamous Brownsville section bring their sarin-tipped ghetto rhymes and experimental rap-rock warheads. ("We the first to really get that shit right since Aerosmith and Run-DMC," MOP producer Laze E. Laze recently boasted, and MOP will be doing a set each of hip-hop and metal with a full band.) DJ Scratch, beatmaker/producer/vocalist with EPMD, Busta Rhymes, DMX, the Roots and LL Cool J, will truck in his battlefield nukes. Former Organized Konfusion MC Pharoahe Monch will envelop you in a cloud of toxic intelligence. And local "blue-collar MC" VG Skillz opens with a good old-fashioned H-town chemical spill. Bring your gas mask, Geiger counter and body armor, and gird yourself for apocalyptic combat. -- John Nova Lomax
Saturday, June 5, at the Engine Room, 1515 Pease, 713-654-7846.
Aerosmith and Cheap Trick
Honkin' on Bobo, Aerosmith's down-and-dirtiest album since God knows when, is a collection dominated by blues, gospel and vintage R&B standards originated by the likes of Bo Diddley, Sonny Boy Williamson and Mississippi Fred McDowell. While it seems merely obnoxious and redundant at first -- Aerosmith needs the blues much more than the blues needs them, and does anybody need another cover, ferocious or not, of "Baby Please Don't Go" -- it does grow on you some. Bassist Tom Hamilton says the album was recorded somewhat haphazardly, at least by megaband standards. There was little overdubbing, as the band mostly recorded together. Then there was the rapid-fire pace of the sessions.
"We would pick a song in the morning and cut it in the afternoon," says Hamilton. "It was a real where-the-rubber-meets-the-road kind of record. Looking back, I listen and think, 'Wow, I could have played better on that cut,' but I at least think I got the feel of the music down."
And making a blues record is not a bad idea for a band as venerable as Aerosmith, a group that is teetering on the brink of fan indifference to new material. Sure, it's one of the few classic-rock-era bands with fans that don't always head for the beer line when they play new stuff, but they're close. And what would you rather hear from them when they take a break from "Walk This Way" and "Sweet Emotion" -- another pallid, radio-friendly, Diane Warren-penned sour ballad along the lines of "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing," or a balls-out rendition of a Willie Dixon tune? Which do you think they'd rather play? They still have a heart, so my money's on the latter.
Cheap Trick's another Arrow-friendly band with a pulse, and while the band's concerts are still ripe with hits, they aren't afraid to go out on tour supporting someone else, and the spirit of their early years is still kinda there. That said, the oddest thing about their new album, Special One, is how little it resembles anything in the Cheap Trick canon. There are songs on the record that sound a little like their old stuff, but there are also songs that can be directly compared to those of their peers. "Pop Drone" sounds like a Zeppelin outtake, "Scent of a Woman," with its roaring vocals and windmill guitar movements, sounds like a mid-'70s cut by the Who, and the title track echoes George Harrison's haunting "Blue Jay Way" in no uncertain terms. For whatever reason, though, it works for them, and the title track is especially a winner.
Given all that, there are plenty of weak points on the album. The ballads are inexcusable, both lyrically and musically, even if the standard elements of Cheap Trick remain in place. Robin Zander's voice still sounds great, Rick Nielsen's guitars are still wanky and thin, and Bun E. Carlos is still surpassed only by AC/DC's Phil Rudd as the most inert drummer in rock. It is also difficult to avoid mention of the fact that Steve Albini worked on two of the tracks, including the overly weird "Low Life in High Heels," a funk-romp with a series of flattened-out vocal tracks that suffer from rampant effects abuse.
Cheap Trick can never outrun the records they made in the '70s, but with this album they have effectively trumped the more pedestrian releases that came after that, when the band sank into a decades-long slump of kitschy appearances on Dick Clark-type TV shows and spring break beach parties, mocking their own past rather than expounding on it. Cheap Trick still writes songs fit for movie soundtracks. The only thing is, they don't make movies like they used to. -- John Nova Lomax and Lance Walker
Friday, June 4, at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, 2025 Lake Robbins Dr., 281-363-3300.
Han Bennink, Holland's legendary, boundary-defacing rhythm fiend, is truly a percussionist without peer. In 1964, while still in his early twenties, Bennink drummed on the final European session of diabetic out-jazz godhead Eric Dolphy (still in print on Polydor Records under the title Last Date); just this year he toured with savage punk/improv veterans the Ex; and in the intervening decades he collaborated with a virtual who's who of adventuresome international musicians, spending a great deal of time in variously sized combos with rib-cracking German sax-marauder Peter Brotzmann.
But Bennink's impressive résumé does not really begin to suggest his true uniqueness as a performer. The man swings with the suaveness and relentlessness of someone a third his age while giving full vent to an irrepressible, anarcho-vaudevillian sense of humor. His high jinks, truth be told, can sometimes upstage or just plain alienate his more traditional-minded fellow musicians. Don't ask why, but some collaborators don't quite know how to respond when the wildly mugging human powderkeg behind the trap kit starts pounding on his tennis-shoe sole in tandem with his own skull, or else yanks out some piece of detritus found backstage, whacking away at it mercilessly, plumbing for untapped sonic possibilities. Perhaps fortunately for potential sidemen, his Houston appearance will find Mr. Bennink performing unaccompanied. By the same token, discriminating jazz fans should be advised that this show is all but guaranteed to be that rare thing: an extended drum solo well worth hearing. -- Scott Faingold
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Sunday, June 6, at Barnevelder Movement /Arts Complex, 2201 Preston, 713-529-1819.
Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1938, J.J. Cale is now playing in his sixth decade. An early crony of Leon Russell, Cale once reached for pop stardom in Los Angeles when he recorded a Russell-produced minor-hit novelty single called "Dick Tracy" in 1960. After playing briefly with legendary roots rockers Delaney and Bonny in 1964, Cale formed a psychedelic band with Roger Tilson called the Leathercoated Minds. But by 1967 he gave up the star chase and returned to the Tulsa clubs, where he began to write songs and perform solo. When Eric Clapton recorded Cale's "After Midnight" in 1970, Cale gained not only some degree of financial viability but also wider attention for his work. His reputation was further enhanced when Clapton recorded "Cocaine" and rockers Lynyrd Skynyrd set fire to Cale's "Call Me the Breeze." With his newfound exposure, Cale even had a minor hit of his own in 1971 with the slinky, laid-back "Crazy Mama." Even Waylon Jennings was a Cale fan and he recorded "Clyde" during his Dukes of Hazzard phase. Throughout his career, Cale stuck with his low-down cool-cat blues-roots style of singing and picking, effectively stanching any chance at wide popular acceptance but endearing him to a die-hard cult of fans who treat his rare personal appearances as second comings. -- William Michael Smith
Monday, June 7, at McGonigel's Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk, 713-528-5999.