Talib Kweli

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.

Shannon Wright

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

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