Talib Kweli is widely considered one of the best lyricists alive today, if not ever. However, this talent hasn't brought him commercial success to match the critical acclaim. This is mostly due to his refusal dumb-down his lyrics and pander to mainstream hip-hop.
His latest album, Prisoner of Conscious, is a bit more radio-friendly, however. Though it will still probably not be a chart-topper, Kweli felt the need to make his music more accessible. He wants to present another side of hip-hop to people that they might not know exists if they only listen to the big hits from the current stars. He tells CNN, "I have kids, and I feel like there are a lot of young people listening to hip-hop, and they need to hear both sides of it."
Prisoner of Conscious took Kweli four years to make. Having his own label enabled him to have the time he needed to work on it until he felt it was really done. His reputation as a "conscious" rapper (meaning that one's lyrics are more noble or responsible than others, according to K'Naan) has put him above the everyday pop-rapper who talks about money and women and how amazing they are. But his upbringing has had a great deal to do with that.
Kweli is the son of a college professor and a university administrator. He went to boarding school as a child. His brother is a law professor at Columbia. He has more to say, and the more ability to say it, than the big stars.
But this doesn't mean much in the music business. Kweli talks about having to promote yourself and what you need to do to get ahead in the world of corporate music, saying, "It's not really a talent-based game right now. No one takes a gamble. In order for you to have music, you have to be a hustler."
Kweli also speaks about the role of art in the world, and how rappers often take the blame for bad situations in poor areas. He believes that art is meant to be a commentary, saying "Artists don't create an environment. Artists look at the environment, and the best artists correctly diagnose the problem...I'm not saying artists can't be leaders, but that's not the job of art, to lead. Bob Marley, Nina Simone, Harry Belafonte -- there are artists all through history who have become leaders, but that was already in them, nothing to do with their art."
We can only hope that Talib Kweli can one day have as much reach as the guys appealing to the lowest common denominator fan. Until then, he'll just have to keep trying.