"Where were you the day hip-hop died? Is it too early to mourn? Is it too late to rise?" Talib Kweli answers his own questions with the title of this track, "Too Late," on his debut LP, Train of Thought. Kweli and his partner, DJ Hi-Tek, express a struggle between grieving and reviving the trampled culture and genre as rappers line up for contracts as if emceeing were a vocation instead of an art.
Reflection Eternal (Kweli and Tek's original name) first arrived as a unit four years ago, when Rawkus Records was still learning to walk. The 12-inch was "Fortified Live," and its flip side, "2000 Seasons," became an anthem committed to memory by many hip-hop diehards. Kweli's voice had the crackle of a well-worn record and floated effortlessly through Hi-Tek's long, trickling piano loop and dusty drums. Then came "Manifesto," from Lyricist Lounge Volume One, an inspiring lyrical diamond mine. RE was on the rise, and any mention of an album had fans drooling.
So it's here, in the midst of a raging storm of fantastic rap stars and wiggling thong-clad butts. The emcee and DJ have no doubt been affected by the rap game, and several tracks make that evident. Collaborations with De la Soul, Mos Def and Kool G Rap sound forced, with little chemistry between artists and rigid, formulated beats. Hi-Tek uses chopped sample bits instead of melodious lines, and the drum tracks begin to sound oddly familiar. Kweli's voice and delivery sound rigid on tracks like "Move Somethin'" as if he's trying a little too hard to create the next Pharoahe Monch "Get the F*ck Up."
Still, the best tracks contain a bottomless spirituality and insight. "Memories Live" is beautifully composed, and Kweli plays on the word reflection as a thought process. This flows right into "Africa Dream," during which Hi-Tek skillfully scratches in the adolescent and adult voices of traditional African song and Kweli flips the meaning of reflection into the mirror image of one's ancestors. The concluding song of the album leaves the greatest impression. RE covers a song called "Four Women" by the rawest vocalist of the 1960s and '70s, Nina Simone. The narrative captures the portraits of an ex-slave, a biracial outcast, a young ghetto prostitute and a revolutionary militant mother. Kweli adapts the lyrics for this era, and Tek creates a rich piano beat, with violins, soulful vocals and scratched guitar echoes from the original.
It isn't too late to rise if artists keep making self-motivated and truthful music and fight the urge to make mass appeal a first priority. Train of Thought carries a little too much of that excess freight, clouding its gems with coal smoke, but it is worth the journey.