Listening to Talib Kweli can be as exhausting as it is invigorating. Since he threw down the gauntlet with Black Star's inspired debut, Kweli's rapid-fire flow has challenged listeners to follow his rush of ideas. But another reason Kweli can be exhausting is the extent to which his albums take sharp turns. On Quality and the first half of The Beautiful Struggle, Kweli switches up styles, moods, and sounds abruptly enough to cause musical whiplash. On Struggle, the clattering Neptunes funk of "Broken Glass" leads immediately into the Sunday-afternoon, lemonade-sipping mellowness of "We Know," then to the icy, squiggly synthesizer aggression of "A Game" before lurching back into the upscale soul of the Kanye West-produced, Mary J. Blige-assisted "I Try."
The twists and turns continue into the album's oft-transcendent second half, which elevates it from good to great. Kweli and Mos Def's self-titled late-'90s masterpiece Black Star helped save hip-hop from the threat of total P. Diddification, so Kweli has earned the right to follow in Diddy's footsteps by sampling The Police on "Around My Way," especially when he's packing lyrics this eloquent. After the giddy dance tracks "We Got The Beat" and "Work It Out," Struggle settles into a cohesive groove on its brilliant last four tracks of lush, soulful production and stirring lyrics.
On the closer, Kweli indignantly says that he doesn't "fuck with politics," but that's just not true. He understandably shies away from the "political" and "conscious" labels, adjectives that can be damaging to an artist trying to recoup his formidable production budget. (Even for an icon as respected as Kweli, the services of The Neptunes, Just Blaze, and Kanye West don't come cheap.) Anyone this passionate and ferociously engaged in the issues of the daywhether warfare, poverty, or the state of hip-hopis by definition a political artist, but Kweli never lets the music get lost in the message. At his best, he touches nerves, raises goosebumps, and unclogs tear ducts, but he also aspires to move bodies and units. Anyone who truly doesn't fuck with politics seems bound to get fucked by politics. But on The Beautiful Struggle, Kweli is savvy enough to play the rap industry's rigged game without sacrificing his soul or compromising his integrity.