When politically-minded rapper Talib Kweli and laid-back producer Madlib team up for their first project as a duo, the better parts of both their talents come together like a beautiful landscape to a skilled portraitist.
LABEL: Blacksmith Records
This pairing might be a dream come true for some underground hip-hop fans who dig Kweli’s thoughtful and word-heavy rhymes or Madlib’s sample-laden and funkalicious beats.
Although Kweli is more known for his work with other worldly rappers like Mos Def, and Madlib with offbeat MCs like MF Doom, their talents mesh well as a give-and-take relationship.
Considering their different sounds, with Kweli more serious and Madlib more wacky, their collaboration, “Liberation,” does seem to free both artists of some of their conventional trappings and confirms their status at the top of their respective pools.
The liberation both artists experience on “Liberation” comes mostly from the duo’s role-playing, with Madlib laying down the landscape and Kweli adding the foreground details.
In this way, neither artist fully takes the spotlight, but both leave their distinct impressions on each song.
Hands down the album’s best track, “Happy Home,” demonstrates this delicate balance the two reach on “Liberation.” Kweli sounds like he memorized a Thesaurus, while Madlib tones down his sometimes bizarre style to a retro, minimal sound.
“Happy Home” reaches into the roots of the Kweli family tree and digs up underlying racial and social tensions of the past, with lines about his parents like, “The world was changing, he knew he couldn’t look past it / Who knew going to school would make him wanna give his name to a girl / And have children that would change the world.”
The beat itself picks up on the time-capsule element of the song with a funky bass guitar, soulful sample of Candice Anderson on the chorus and vintage trumpet toots.
The following song, “Soul Music,” is the album’s only Madlib-led track. Talib floats through a trip-hop beat, accompanied by R&B’s Res, but the focus lays on the spacey beat.
The track feels out of place because it violates the agreement the Kweli and Madlib established over the majority of the album: Madlib picks the canvas but Kweli is the paint.
Without the landscape grounding a scene to a certain time and place, the muse of the painting would be floating in space. In this way, Madlib’s chill beats ground Kweli’s sometimes hyperactive lyrics, making the music easier to grasp, digest and enjoy.
This balance, which benefits both MC and producer when done right, makes a solid argument for MC and producer pairings in which the two comfortably share the spotlight.
In the case of “Liberation,” MC and producer have achieved this balance, like a cohesive oil painting where both the scenery and the muse are a beauty on their own, but one could not exist without the other.