Saturday Night: Talib Kweli At House Of Blues

Talib Kweli House of Blues September 4, 2010

For more shots of Fat Tony, Talib Kweli, etc., see our slideshow here.

Once upon a time, Talib Kweli was poised to become a mainstream hip-hop success. His blend of conscious rhymes with accessible beats made him a force in rap. Peers, from Jay-Z to Kanye West, constantly showered him with adulation. But Kweli could never figure out how to make that big leap without compromising his message.

The reason to continue to root for dudes like Talib Kweli and Mos Def is that occasionally they turn conscious rhymes into compelling albums. Aftermath arrived at House of Blues pregnant with anticipation, eager to experience the live rendition of Kweli's hit catalog.

Around 9:20 p.m, the first opening act, O.N.E., took to the stage and plugged his Twitter page in between songs. Oh, how times have changed. Up next was the Niceguys, whose spirited rendition of "Mr. Perfect" drove House of Blues to a frenzy.

When the event's host, MC H-Kane, announced, "This next act is from Brooklyn," the crowd expected to see Talib Kweli. Instead, BK group 4th N Inches graced the stage as boos rang out from the audience. Like Cali Swag District with a better wardrobe consultant, 4th N Inches is an anthem-happy hip-hop group, and spent the next 20 minutes pondering the politics of cheese and hood rats over B-rate instrumentals.

Those boos had now been replaced by a deafening silence. At one point, a member of 4th N Inches tossed his hat into the crowd, expecting people to go nuts over it. It landed at some dude's feet, so he picked it up and flung it back at the artist. Ouch.

Around 10:18, the crowd started chanting "Kweli! Kweli!" A whiff of marijuana mixed with boredom wafted across the room. To raise the venue's temperature, DJ Good Grief played some classic hip-hop cuts.

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In an unexpected, entertaining twist, Fat Tony showed up and energized the crowd to the tune of "Like Hell Yeah." Tony is truly a throwback MC, a performer versed in the art of moving the crowd. A fan offered him a glass of beer in appreciation. He ran across the front of the stage while rapping and holding the drink the entire time. In case you're curious, he didn't spill any of it.

Around 10:55, an Astros-hat clad Kweli emerged onstage and launched into a high-energy rendition of "Move Something," a highlight off Reflection Eternal's debut LP. It was a sign of things to come, as the rest of the night would be heavy on Reflection Eternal cuts.

No surprise there. Kweli crafted some of his best work within the Reflection Eternal framework. The way his razor-sharp voice slid behind producer Hi-Tek's dusty, hard-wired beats made their songs underground classics.

While the overarching aesthetic remains the same, each of Kweli's four solo albums boasts its own thematic signature. 2004's Quality allowed Kweli to experiment with a rich, warm music palette courtesy of Kanye West, DJ Quik and others.

Drunk on compliments and riding high on his well-received debut, Kweli attempted to bridge the gap between the mainstream and the underground on 2004's Beautiful Struggle. 2007's Ear Drum was wildly experimental, loose, and triumphant.

Our favorite is Quality, a musically dense yet pointedly lyrical album that rewards repeated listening. Oddly enough, Quality was visibly missing from Kweli's set list on this night (with the exception of one song). He leaned, instead, on a handful of Black Star favorites and Reflection Eternal's thin catalog.

Kweli is truly at his best when he's not busy translating his music for the masses. Whenever he performed his semi-party grooves ("Say Something," "Midnight Hour," etc) the audience grew lukewarm. Once he replaced his jiggy obsession with a conscious itch, the crowd returned to his side.

Particularly "Ballad of the Black Gold," which generally sympathizes with Nigeria's oil crisis, generated a deafening ovation. Truth be told, the substance in Kweli's music is palpable and winning.

He injected his set with local color, performing his UGK collaborations "Real Women" and "Country Cousins" back to back. Shockingly, Bun B was nowhere to be found.

What Kweli learned quickly was that you don't make dance music for people who approach the dance floor with great trepidation. After about half an hour of nonlinear, ideologically sharp rhyming, he told the crowd that, since they had been good, he would reward them with a sample of the new Black Star record.

You could touch the excitement in the air as he paced to the DJ booth to cue the song. He informed us that the song was still raw, since it was recorded the previous night. Mos Def's unmistakable voice boomed from the speakers. The yet-to-be-titled song was pretty much two minutes of non-stop rhyming by Mighty Mos, followed by a verse so fresh Kweli hasn't had time to memorize it.

"And now, back to the classics." With that announcement, Kweli cued Reflection Eternal's "The Blast." Around 12:01, the Brooklyn rapper bid Houston adieu and left the stage. Three minutes later, he returned to fulfill his legal obligation to perform "Get By." Though everyone was visibly drained of energy at this point, "Get By" still proved to be an evocative song and everyone sang along.

It doesn't matter if Talib Kweli has never reached the commercial acclaim of his contemporaries. All that matters is that he's content with his status as one of the astute and progressive voices in hip-hop. It takes skill to purposefully move minds through song - a skill Jay-Z would kill for.

Personal Bias: We own all of Kweli's solo albums, collaborative albums and mixtapes.

Overheard in the Crowd: "Anthony Hamilton is hip-hop, but he's also kind of R&B."

Random Notebook Dump: While waiting for Kweli to take the stage, a young couple in the front frequently stole Spiderman kisses. It was an infinitely adorable sight to behold.

Set List

Move Something In This World Say Something Too Late Hot Thing The Eternalist Country Cousins Definition Ballad of the Black Gold Midnight Hour The Blast Get By

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