Talib Kweli and I have a history. Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Blackstar is my first hip-hop memory. Quality is one of my favorite albums of all time. “Get By” will forever be the motto. But when the advance of Talib Kweli’s eighth studio album, Radio Silence, hit my inbox, I had some reservations. No one wants to see their heroes collect dust, and while Kweli’s past two full-length releases didn’t damage his legacy, they did chip away at my hope for a brighter future.
On Radio Silence, hope has been restored—literally. More than a return to form for Kweli, this album could not have come at a better time. Hearing the instrumentation on this record will warm your heart and polish your soul. The title of this record, Radio Silence, is a call to action. The record itself is a stand against complacency, a move to break the silence. Whether your voice has been erased or stomped out by grief, the album is here to fill the space in spades.
Opening with the most becoming strings and backing vocals, “The Magic Hour” is true to its name. Kweli sets this record up to be the cleansing moment we’ve all been looking for. He comes out the gate swinging, spitting with bravado and purpose. The first element that will catch your ears is Kweli’s energy. He is as spirited as he is wise, and the lush production doesn’t dampen his delivery. Even the tender “The One I Love,” featuring BJ The Chicago Kid, shows Kweli in tip-top form.
Sonically and thematically, this is an album peering over the precipice. Across Radio Silence, Kweli discusses the tides sweeping over his native Brooklyn, reforming the city into something unfamiliar to the rapper. Though the city cries out on “Knockturnal,” Kweli handles the shifts in emotion with grace. On the title track, Kweli delivers his double-timing politically conscious punchlines, but the production has an electronic jitter. More than compromise, this song is a moment of innovation for Kweli.
Innovation invariably leads to variety. “Chips” is as boisterous a record as you'll find in Kweli’s discography. You can feel the Waka Flocka feature coming from the dark purple timbre of the horns. Meanwhile, “Let It Roll” brings a Midwestern-influenced bounce. He’s “got the ill melody, but it’s still hood.” In that breath, Radio Silence plays like the grand intersection of two of hip-hop’s most critical timelines.
Where the album falters is during its most pedantic moments. The flashes of Kweli sounding less like a man and more like a messiah sand down the great work he’s done to refine his essence as a man of the people. This is more than a generational plague. Brother Ali’s All the Beauty in This Whole Life may have fallen into the same trap, but so did Logic’s Everybody. Speech in an album is near-impossible to execute flawlessly, but the messages expressed on “Write At Home” are almost strong enough to forgive the misstep—almost.
The opening protest sample on “All of Us” proves that Talib Kweli can strike a balance between the lecture and the art. This is what also makes “Write At Home” so frustrating, but keeps listeners' ears on the majesty of “All of Us.” Yummy Bingham’s vocal work has enough body to rival a full choir. And before you ask, yes, the Jay Electronica verse is strong. Why Jay Elec keeps playing with our hearts, we’ll never know.
Kweli’s perspective on this record is far from one of a surly “old-head.” He neither chases after days of old nor makes clunky compromises in his music. Within the soundscapes of 2017, he finds pockets that inspire him and excavates them in full. He recognizes that “hip-hop will flourish with nourishment and the proper care,” and still actively plays his part. Thankfully, Radio Silence is the most human record Talib Kweli has released in a long time.
A reminder of Talib Kweli’s legendary status isn’t necessary, but it is more than appreciated.
Three Standout Tracks:
“Traveling Light" ft. Anderson .Paak
If “The Magic Hour” is the opening credits, "Traveling Light" is the satisfying montage that makes the summer blockbuster a hit. With Kaytranada on the beat, this song is the wind-up to a soulful sucker punch. With a breathtaking assist from hip-hop’s man of 2016 and beyond, Anderson .Paak, the successes of Radio Silence are captured in these four-and-a-half minutes.
Sultry, jazzy, the dusk to the dawn of “Traveling Light,” “Knockturnal” feels timeless. The arrangement here is brilliant. Where Kweli tells you to hear the city weep, an aching saxophone comes in to complete the image. Personifying the block and proclaiming himself as Brooklyn’s lifeblood, this is quintessential Kweli.
“She’s My Hero”
For the amount of storytelling in "She's My Hero," I still struggle to believe it clocks in at under three minutes. Produced by Oh No, Kweli honors the brave 14-year-old Bresha Meadows who killed her father after years of abuse. From the violence in the home to the courtroom scene Kweli paints for us, the song speaks for itself.