The south coast’s most discerning hip-hop fanatics gathered on an out of the ordinary January evening, to witness skills from one of rap’s less familar heroes. While he’s a long, long way from being a hapless journeyman, Talib Kweli has shown little interest in chasing the glamourous showbusiness dollar. Whether instigated by his polemical stances on social media, or his refusal to be defined by other’s expectations of him, he’s cheerfully flown under the radar of vanilla mainstream rap. For his contemporaries, legions of superstar collaborators and that kid on your block who knows about such special things, his skills are almost unsurpassable.
After a brief bit of warm-up from his DJ, Kweli hits the stage and delights an already adoring crowd. It’s been almost 20 years since his debut, Train of Thought, but he makes its classiest cuts sound as compelling and fresh as ever. We also sweep back to his roots, with some of the sensational Black Star album, recorded with fellow Brooklyn-son, Mos Def. All of it is delivered perfectly, showing just how much control he has over his tone and breathing, occasionally dropping in some syncopation to lift complex passages. Nearly 25 years on, this lyrical gladiator has got more energy and passion than kids half his age.
The crowd love it all, throwing up ‘Wu hands’ for Rocket Ships, his collaboration with RZA. While much of the show is socially conscious, playful elements flow in and out. A sing-along to Lonely People’s sample of Eleanor Rigby (still a rare example of somebody successfully improving on a Beatles tune) works to lift the fans even higher. Offering respect to lost pioneers who paved the way, like J Dilla and Bob Marley, dispensing potent political observations and pointing the way to the future, Kweli puts everything into his show. Scheduled on one of the UK’s most divisive evenings, passions are running high in the crowd, but he remains unperturbed. Wringing plenty of bass out of the Concorde 2’s soundsystem, he skips between formalised verses and freestyles – always keeping the tempo up and pushing everyone onwards.
The crescendo of the evening is the soul-rending Get By, which borrows from, and elevates, Nina Simone’s Sinnerman. Probably his most high-profile release so far, this Kanye West produced track gets a massive reaction. And then suddenly it’s all over. In such a content-rich environment there’s been a lot to take in. Rebelling against a world of compromise and hypocrisy, Kweli has demonstrated again that he’s an almost peerless entertainer.