I can’t say that I’m the most cultivated rap connoisseur on this campus, nor am I the genre’s biggest fan – I could probably name every country in the world better than I could the original roster of the Wu Tang Clan or the entirety of Kanye West’s discography. But after almost four years of higher education, I can safely say that I do know my fair share of popular rapper names. I have heard the name Talib Kweli thrown around once or twice at a party before and knew that he was a pretty big deal in the hip-hop and rap world. So when I got wind that he would be performing at MASS MoCA last Saturday, I gladly jumped at the opportunity to get myself off campus, hear some live music and dance elsewhere than a sweaty Goodrich party.
Known as the forerunner of the conscious rap movement, the Brooklyn-based rapper has earned the title of one of the most lyrically-gifted, socially-aware and politically-insightful rappers to emerge in the last 20 years. Throughout his career, he has collaborated with well-known artists such as Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar and Mos Def, producing music that addresses social issues, most of them concerning racial stereotypes and police brutality.
The Hunter Center at MASS MoCA could only be described as a packed and sweaty concert hall – not so different from the very party I was trying to escape. The opening group, Rebel Diaz, seemed to have a solid command over the audience. The loud and invigorating performance by the Brooklyn-based trio, combined with a blinding light show and the lingering cloud of smoke, created the perfect storm to get the people going. As the audience began what would become a long night of hand raising and swaying, Rebel Diaz asked us to chant “sueño bien” (Spanish for “dream well”) repeatedly to the beat of the music, while they finished up with a fiery swan song prior to welcoming Talib Kweli to the stage. Before leaving the stage, however, a stale taste was left in our mouths when Rebel Diaz provided some awkward, last minute political commentary regarding illegal immigration and the American prison system. With that, the audience noise level fell to a dull roar as we waited for Kweli to come on stage.
After almost 15 minutes, Kweli’s D.J. took the stage and revitalized the crowd’s energy with a few opening songs, combining hip-hop and electronic beats while mixing samples from the ’70s and ’80s. As the D.J. faded his set with a symphonic outro, Kweli finally emerged from stage left to a crowd of bellowing fans. Almost immediately, the entire audience’s hands were in the air, as we bobbed our heads, hands and bodies to the pulsating rhythm of Kweli’s verses. Kweli brought a remarkable presence to the stage that had every member of the audience captivated; the combination of the energy of his movements and voice with the synchronized shouts of the audience generated an atmosphere that had everyone going crazy. Since Kweli mainly performed tracks off his newest album, Prisoner of Conscious, the crowd was unaware of many of the lyrics. This, however, was not a setback to the overall energy, as a cacophony of “yeahs” and yelling constantly filled the hall. Kweli proved to be a dynamic artist, bringing a range of different characters and moods to the stage.
At times, his music and lyrics were explosive and aggressive with songs such as “Upper Echelon.” Other times, Kweli would gain composure with songs like “Come Here,” and his rhymes became smoother and more fluid. Twice throughout the night, Kweli asked his D.J. to stop the music as he proceeded to rap a cappella. Unfazed by the overwhelming commotion of the audience, Kweli spit out improvised verses like lightning without any hesitation or pause. Kweli and his D.J. also surprised the audience with a variety of throwbacks and humor, incorporating The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” and Big Sean’s “Dance (A$$)” into two of his songs. As Kweli neared the end of his set list, I found myself hoping that he would perform his most popular song “Get By” – funnily enough, the only song I was familiar with. My prayers were answered when I heard the infamous beginning lament of Nina Simone’s voice blast from the speakers, as Kweli followed close by with the lyrics from “Get By.”
Talib Kweli shook the walls of MASS MoCA and took the Berkshires by storm. The roller coaster ride of energy and emotion I felt after leaving that concert was unforgettable.