TALIB KWELI AND HI-TEKReflection Eternal (Rawkus)

Talib Kweli dreams of Africa. But unlike Kim Basinger‘s Great White Mother fantasies, Kweli’s vision quest speaks on “how it is and how it could be,” an analogy to hip-hop‘s reality and potential as he loses himself among the talking rhythms of Bossi Kouytate and the chord progressions of pianist Weldon Irvine. “How it is” is hip-hop’s endless boasting and toasting to empty achievements; “how it could be” is a call for enlightened awareness of self and society, a theme that threads its way through much of Kweli and DJ Hi-Tek‘s impressive debut, Reflection Eternal.

Like his Black Star partner Mos Def, Kweli is a b-boy intellectual, a Reagan-era soul baby raised on measured doses of Public Enemy politics and Amiri Baraka poetics. As articulate as he is entertaining, Kweli targets his tongue at rappers “so hollowthey echo like sentiments,” but he expresses far more than the didactic rhetoric we’ve come to associate with the jiggy-rap backlash. On some songs, Kweli flexes his street science, exploding with firecracker lyrics on tracks like “Move Somethin‘,” or the brawling “Down for the Count” (featuring Xzibit and Rah Digga), on which he brags, “Might be over your headbut it’s straight from the heartI show my love in the lightwhile ya‘ll hate in the dark.” But Kweli’s even more masterful in healing black male-female relations on the inspiring “Love Language” (with Afro-Franco songstresses Les Nubians), reminiscing about his Brooklyn childhood on “Memories Live,” and challenging ghetto death fetishes on “Good Mourning”: “Everybody‘s time comes to be embraced by the lightyou only scared to diewhen you ain’t living right.” DJ Hi-Tek is similarly inspired across the 20-some tracks he produces, ranging from the downpour of strings he unleashes on “Name of the Game,” to the bubbly funk guitars on “Soul Rebels” and the floating keys and thumping kicks of “Love Language.”

Whether in car, crib or club, the music carries. It‘s also a testament to both men’s strength of personality that the album never feels like a hackneyed excuse for a cameo fest, despite the dozen-plus guests who pop up, including De La Soul, Vinia Mojica, Mos Def, Kool G Rap and Tiye Phoenix. One of the most compelling songs is “Too Late,” a timely engagement with the supposed “death of hip-hop,” as Kweli asks, “Is it too early to mournIs it too late to ride?” More than a few credible pundits have declared 2000 the absolute worst year in hip-hop ever, but efforts like Outkast‘s Stankonia and Reflection Eternal seem poised to at least partially redeem the millennium’s inauspicious start. Hopefully, Kweli and Hi-Tek represent a shift to a new rule, and not just the exception.

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