Talib Kweli has long gotten high marks from critics, but he’s never been able to capture the mainstream success he deserves. His old partner Mos Def has gone on to star in numerous Hollywood films, but Kweli continues to plug away on the hip-hop circuit, striving to make that crossover leap. With his third proper full-length, Eardrum, Kweli makes a valiant effort for mainstream success thanks to collaborations with Kanye West, Will.i.am, Justin Timberlake, UGK, KRS-One, Musiq Soulchild and Norah Jones. The result is at times compelling but rather uneven.
Eardrum could lose about a third of its tracks and be better for it, but there are some exciting moments of classic hip-hop, notably the irresistible boom-bap of “NY Weather Report” and “Say Something,” which features Jean Grae. The production is as varied as you’d expect, with entries from Kanye West, Madlib, Hi-Tek, Kwame, and Nick Speed. Kweli doesn’t stray too far from his standard soulful sound — see the Outkast-flavored “Country Cousins” and the Roy Ayers-sampling “In the Mood.” But the best tracks, such as the energetic “More Or Less,” offer up excellent production with nimble emcee skills. (Among other things on that track, Kweli says the world needs “More Beyonce, less Britney.”)
In true Kweli fashion, the topics range from politics, poverty, and world issues to lighter fare. Will.i.am produces one of the album’s most accessible tracks: the bouncy “Hot Thing.” But for every winner there is a disposable song, such as KRS-One collaboration, “The Perfect Beat,” and the Musiq Soulchild track, “Oh My Stars.” Kweli shows again that he deserves the respect he receives, but Eardrum is simply not cohesive enough.