By: Zachary Kolesar
A heavily analyzed, self-admitting hypocritical line from JAY-Z’s “Moment of Clarity” accurately defines the divide between mainstream and underground hip-hop. On what many thought would be his last album, the music mogul raps, “If skills sold, truth be told, I’d probably be lyrically Talib Kweli.”
From Kweli’s perspective, the fact that he chose craft over the charts can either be looked at as a compliment or a slight. But regardless, the 42-year-old veteran has maintained over the years.
And his musical versatility was on display during Kweli’s stop at Ace of Cups on Thursday.
Yes, local venue Ace of Cups was a host to a hip-hop legend. Like the bar has seen in the past, a diverse crowd—as described by Kweli—once again gathered to bask in an emcee that has been iconic for decades.
Before 9:30 p.m., DJ Spintelect took the helm behind the boards and spanned various genres; sometimes haphazardly jumping styles, but knowingly setting the tone for the night. His expertise was put to use for the upcoming two hours.
The first performer that took the stage with Spintelect was NIKO IS, who signed to Kweli’s Javotti Media label after a collaboration in 2013. An entertaining act who got the sold-out crowd riled up, the Brazilian-born rapper fluctuated between talking to the audience and freestyling in rhyme at times during his half-hour set.
During “The Cravings,” a track that got Ace of Cups really amped up, the call of “Cheers, I hope you live to 100 years,” started to catch on during his opening slot. NIKO IS’ stage setup was accompanied by a giant background projector screen, which mainly displayed fast-forward, Windows screensaver-type visuals. His humor was on display as well, citing years that he wrote songs well before he was even born.
Getting the crowd amped up for Kweli was a dynamic portion of NIKO IS’ set; a nod of respect to a human who gave him a chance and recognized his talent. But the swarm was already more than prepared to see a rare performance come through Columbus.
Just after 10 p.m., Kweli—donning a uniform denim jacket—emerged from behind the projector, starting the show off with “Shock Body,” a classic cut off of his essential 2002 debut Quality. Right off the bat, the Brooklyn-bred rapper was continuously asking the sound crew to turn up the music and mics.
However, the 42-year-old was just getting started with a ride through a catalogue that stretches back 16 years and references to tracks that go back decades.
Having Spintelect mix some Wu-Tang Clan records, Kweli was using the beginning of his show to showcase the long legacy of hip-hop. He continued to show his versatility by bringing out a song off of his latest LP, Radio Silence, released in Nov. 2017. “Traveling Light,” which features Anderson .Paak, truly lightened up the crowd and showed how well Kweli has aged.
What ended up being a focal point of Kweli’s performance was his loyalty to the producers who helped pave his career. Unabashedly, he cited the Midwest as having the “best hip-hop producers”—No I.D., Karriem Riggins, J Dilla, Cincinnati’s legendary Hi-Tek and Columbus’ own J. Rawls, who was even brought up on stage during the set.
By paying homage, Kweli tore apart Jaylib cut “Raw Shit,” displayed the Black on Both Sides album artwork while Spintelect spun “Umi Says” and brought out Cincy’s Space Invadaz. After an intensely fun, uplifting rendition of “I Want You Back,” Kweli praised the diversity in the venue—spanning generations—and the unity that hip-hop brings. Even the Marley family stopped by way of Spinteletc for a few tribute songs.
Displayed on the projector throughout the night were images from the Civil Rights Movement, homages to Dilla and Phife Dawg and old-school footage of Kweil with partner-in-rhyme Yasiin Bey, formerly known as Mos Def, and Hi-Tek donning a Cleveland Indians hat. In every way at his disposal, Kweli was guiding fans through a range of musical and cultural universes.
He also welcomed any Trump supporter in the crowd to have a “spirited debate” with him after the show. In a Reddit AMA he did almost five years ago, Kweli responded to a question about hip-hop as a medium to get out political views: “I feel like hip hop is a great tool to express political views, but sometimes purists mistakenly say this is what hip hop started as...Hip hop has always been about escapism, partying, sex drugs and money, as well as a vehicle for social change. I don't want one over the other, I want a balance.”
The general vibe of the show, though, was how well Kweli has aged and the solidarity different genres of music can bring.
After breathlessly, effortlessly spitting bar after bar at Spintelect’s hand, Kweli went on to proclaim that Paul McCartney also had bars. “Don’t believe me?” Kweli slyly questioned, which led to Spintelect throwing down some “Eleanor Rigby.” Unshockingly yet impressive, Kweli straight spit on the track, saying at one point during his verse to “check the thermometer.”
No question, it was hot. The Brooklyn native jokingly mocked McCartney for letting Ja Rule have the sample but not clearing it for himself.
Before closing out the night, it seemed like Kweli knew he had to come with the hits. Playing a popular track of Blackstar, his group with Bey, “Definition” woke the crowd up with some more Hi-Tek production and Kweli’s fundamental, syncopated style.
The 11:30 encore, consisting of “G” titled Kanye West collaborations, reminded the crowd that even Kweli’s cuts that lean more toward the radio are just as enjoyable as his continual, freeform raps. His playful verse on “Get Em High” and the illustrious, Nina Simone-sampled “Get By”—also off of Quality—cemented the night as a diverse walk through musical history.
JAY-Z, at 48, seems like he is veering toward the end of his career with the release of his tell-all 4:44. Kweli, on the other hand, had the vitality and swagger of a rookie at Ace of Cups; a veteran rapper that still looks ready to prolong his career in the same underground circuit he began in.