Upon postponing his debut album, Talib Kweli stepped onto the hip-hop scene with rapper Mos Def, creating the duo known as Black Star. The pair quickly became the game’s warranted political justice gurus, lighting up two successful solo careers with social commentary and political strife fueling the release. Now 17 years later, Kweli’s will to shake the public conscience becomes a shared effort. This time he teams up with veteran producer 9th Wonder and a handful of guest spots on Indie 500.
A quick glance at the tracklist leaves the impression that Kweli intends to share the preacher’s mic this time around. For such a large list of features, most of the guest verses on Indie 500 are solid. The channeled civil rights energy on opening battle anthem “Which Side Are You On (feat. Tef Poe & Kendra Ross)” sets a justly fierce tone, as Tef Poe raps, “Martin on my arm, but the struggle made me more Malcolm.” Kweli trades poised verses between equally assertive Problem and Bad Lucc on “Don’t Be Afraid (feat. Rapsody, Problem & Bad Lucc).” Among all the worthy offerings, it’s Rapsody that takes the MVP spot on several tracks. Her appearance on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly earlier this year exposed her to a large audience of the hip-hop faithful, and her contributions to Indie 500 continue her attention-worthy hot streak. The difficulties of being a female rapper don’t hold her back on uplifting “Life Ahead of Me (feat. Rapsody),” whereas we see a mighty street warrior orate lyrical righteousness over looped gospel on “Every Ghetto (feat. Rapsody).”
9th Wonder’s cred in the rap world runs deep, working with the likes of Jay-Z, Destiny’s Child, Erykah Badu and many others over the years. The years of experience show through his meticulously crafted style, mixing in tight snare pops with a talent for soulful sampling, tailored in reference to some of his influencing producers like J Dilla or RZA. A fluttering woodwind on “King Shit (feat. NIKO IS & GQ)” works as an oddly appropriate contrast to both NIKO IS and GQ’s grittier voices, while the smooth sampled R&B singers on “Great Day in the Morning (feat. Add 2)” brighten an already spiritually resonant track.
Indie 500 is at its best when Kweli and 9th Wonder work to each other’s strengths, so some of Kweli’s more tonally aggressive songs fall flat. Kweli struts his ability to spit successive rhymes on “Lo-Fi (feat. NIKO IS),” but his pace throws off the whole rhythm, horribly diverging from Wonder’s laid-back beat. “Prego (feat. Pharoahe Monch & Slug)” has some pretty strong lines from Kweli, Pharoahe Monch and Slug, but Kweli repeating “Prego sauce” of the opening and ending chorus becomes an annoying itch with repeated listens. Kweli’s sharp delivery seems to fight the tone of “Life Ahead of Me (feat. Rapsody)” rather than fit it, whereas Rapsody’s flow in the first and third verses work much better. Kweli is a talented rapper, but his style tends to be hit or miss when placed on the variety of beats 9th Wonder provides.
Indie 500 allows Talib Kweli to fight the good fight atop 9th Wonder’s skilled production, but leaves just enough space for some much welcomed guests of honor. For a year that’s shaping up to be a pinnacle time for hip-hop culture, Indie 500 earns its chops and solidifies Kweli as a worthy contributor.