Kweli Waxes Lyrical at Bar None

In his first verse in “So Low”, Talib Kweli raps:

People I knew before celebrity swear they see the change in me
I tell ’em change is god, you gotta let it be

And there is a change in Kweli, as a performer. It’s maturity, perhaps. The Talib Kweli of the late ’90s and early ’00s was an energetic force, fast-moving, spilling over with the pressure and the joy of his own lyrical ability. He was – and is – a rap genius. But whereas ten years ago he was infused with a sort of self-reflexive, boundless enthusiasm, like a young Clark Kent discovering his powers, the Kweli of today comes off as a focused, dedicated craftsman. And still, of course, one of the best rappers around.

The show at Bar None on Sunday night was the sort of simple setup that only works for the truly talented. Vancouver rapper SonReal, fresh from opening for Method Man at the Commodore, opened with a short, infectiously cheerful set. Like Talib, SonReal is the one emcee/no gimmicks/no frills type, the kind of performance that lives or dies on the strength of the rap. The set highlighted a bit of a curiosity – he’s much better live than recorded. There’s a sneaking sort of delight in SonReal’s performance, a simple enjoyment of rap, that his recorded tracks don’t seem to capture. And his videos, too, crush all the effort out, hide the breaths between bars, hide the strain of packed lines – videos do this for most rappers, of course, but somehow the contrast is particularly notable with SonReal. But, hell with it – the main point is, he repped Vancouver well in setting the stage for one of my favourite Brooklyn rappers.

Kweli’s set covered territory from Blackstar, circa 1998, right through to tracks from the upcoming (and much delayed) Prisoner of Conscious. For the kid who was walking down the road listening to Train of Thought on his Discman while cars drove by blasting “Butterfly” by Crazy Town, the old Rawkus stuff was a particular delight – those old Hi-Tek beats still do it like pretty much nothing else.

The thing about Kweli is, it doesn’t really matter if you know the tracks.

I admit it, I don’t know my newer Kweli all that well, and my +1 didn’t know any at all. But the effect of the rapper’s simple, calm stage presence is a total focus on lyrics. After all, Kweli’s lyrics tend to mean something, in the best way – there’s poetry to be discovered and metaphors to be considered amidst, yes, all of the typical posturing of rap (though that’s pulled off with aplomb as well). The show had all the collective enthusiasm, drunkenness, and excited yelling of any rap concert, but rather than obscuring lyrics with spectacle, Kweli’s set demanded a certain attentiveness; he has something to say that he wants audiences to hear.

It’s not that Kweli isn’t a showman, simply that he trades gimmickry and swagger for dedication and focus. Kweli wants to entertain, but to transmit meaning, as well. Luckily – but not surprisingly – he achieved both at Bar None.

Check out “Upper Echelon” from Kweli’s upcoming Prisoner of Conscious, which is receiving the expected flack for a beat too mainstream and lyrics too underground: