This past week, after Nelson Mandela died, we asked Brooklyn rapper Talib Kweli whether he might write a piece in memoriam. He did, and sent us a really, nice, thoughtful article that we published on Tuesday. Today, Talib, is releasing his fifth solo album, Gravitas. (The rare Sunday release!) Talib is always an interesting person to talk to, and we haven't chopped it up with him since May, when his last album, Prisoner of Conscious, came out. So we extended our email conversation into an interview about his new work.
Why did you choose to call your album "Gravitas"?
Prisoner of Conscious was about music more than lyrics. I feel that people can be dismissive of me as a musician when they focus so much on my lyrics. Don't get me wrong, I am proud to be considered a great lyricist, but if it wasn't for my musical choices no one would hear me or care. So I tried new things musically on POC and worked with many guests. On Gravitas, my focus is on telling my story lyrically. The word gravitas is used to describe someone whose words and actions have importance and weight. I felt it was time to introduce some gravitas into hip-hop.
Can you expound on the idea that hip-hop was, or is, lacking in gravitas?
Hip-hop is not lacking gravitas, mainstream, corporate-supported hip-hop lacks gravitas. There are brilliant artists who remain under the radar yet consistently add to the celebration of the culture rather than it's demise. I'm proud to be associated with those type of artists. But I can still play the game on a mainstream level. Hit or no-hit-record, if I put something out that's quality, the industry picks up on it, still.
I understand you're selling the album directly through your website. Is this your first time embarking on this level of direct-to-audience sales? What are your thoughts about this? Why are you choosing this method, what do you think the advantages are? Are there any potential disadvantages?
Although I am known as a leader in the indie movement, I have been distributed by majors for most of my career, even while I was on Rawkus. The first truly indie album I did was Gutter Rainbows on Javotti/3D. Gravitas takes it up a notch. I am following the lead of Ryan Leslie who provided the www.kweliclub.com platform for me. He's a genius for it. The advantages are: I will get the fans' emails. Everyone who sells music online gets consumer emails but the actual artist, it's not fair. Now I can communicate with actual fans who actually buy. I can look at my database and see who's buying what and where, and the money will come directly to me as opposed to a third party. Honestly, I don't know if people mean it when they say they want to support artists directly. I will know after this, I've left you no excuse. Another disadvantage is: people are used to getting music where they are used to getting music. It will take a sec to get them to understand Gravitas is ONLY available at www.kweliclub.com
I read that you've been working with Q-Tip. Is it true that he appears on the album?
Q-Tip is not on Gravitas. We've done a couple of songs together. But I've been on tour with Macklemore Ryan Lewis and Big KRIT and I really want to get back in with Tip live-in-the-flesh to finish these songs. They weren't ready for Gravitas.
Ahh. I see. Okay. How has it been touring with Macklemore and Ryan Lewis? They get dismissed by a lot people for being "not real hip-hop." (Interestingly, a lot of people criticize them for lacking gravitas.) Whereas you are an artist who has developed a reputation for representing a very "true-school" type of music.
Touring with Macklemore Ryan Lewis and Big KRIT has been great. It's not lost on me that this is the biggest hip-hop tour in the country and also the only one where every artist is straight indie. That's a game changer. Whether you are a fan of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis' songs or not, there's no denying that they put on for indie music in a major way, The Heist album, to me, is the story of the year in music.
As far as them lacking gravitas, I would beg to differ. There are no voices in mainstream music, besides Macklemore, and Kanye West, addressing any social issues. In any genre, not just mainstream hip-hop. Throughout Macklemore's career he has tackled racism in the song "White Privilege," deadly consumerism in "Wings," gay rights in "Same Love," the list goes on. Anyone who says he lacks gravitas is clearly caught up in the same hype machine they criticize because they are only paying attention to fun songs like "Thrift Shop" and "Can't Hold Us" and are not looking beneath the surface at all.
Has anyone, fans of yours, or fellow artists, expressed displeasure with your joining this tour? If so, what did you say?
Fans have complained to me on Twitter and Facebook, but any fan that complains about me getting an opportunity to reach the audience Macklemore and Ryan Lewis have attained really doesn't understand how this business works. If the amount of people who complained about the success of rappers they say they don't like actually purchased the music from the rappers they say they do like, they would have nothing to complain about.
Hip-hop can be so many different things. That's one of the great things about it—it can range from pure fun, to something with very great gravitas. If you had to choose three artists, from all of rap history, who you see as best bringing gravitas to the music, who might that be?
Chuck D would be number one, his voice, the power of his words. Number two would be Nas. He's untouchable with the lyrics. And number three I gotta go with Mos Def, not just with the lyrics but the way he lives his life. He leads by example.
How about the other side: If you had to choose three artists who you see as making the best just good-time party-music—stuff you might put on specifically to alleviate gravitas, to lighten a mood—who would they be?
I would go with my man Lil Jon, Future, and Waka Flocka.
I like the message in your new song "The Wormhole" very much. As compelling as conspiracy theories are, I think people are worse off for putting a lot of mental energy towards them. Could you tell me about your ideas for writing that song?
I think that misinformation can be very dangerous because it keeps you distracted from the real problems at hand. Our communities are in too much danger to be focused on which rapper is in the Illuminati. The things that are being done for population control and the way the international banking community is sucking this planet dry is already sinister enough. You don't need to pretend these people are in some Legion of Doom type organization to recognize what they are trying to do.
I especially like the line "Good vs. evil is primitive/Real life's more complex..." (One reason that I like it is because I work at Complex, and I like the name of the magazine more and more the older I get, because the older I get, the more I see life as extremely complex. I used to see things more in terms of "good vs. evil," more of a binary thing. Whereas everything is so very complicated, with shades an nuances, and we're better off seeing things like that.) I see the understanding of the complexity of life as, basically, "maturity." You hint at this in the lyrics, too, saying you used to read all the "Behold a Horse" stuff. What are your thoughts about that: maturity as an acceptance (and even an embrace) of maturity?
You can't know what you are reading without examining the history of the author. But no one tells you that when you are young, so you assume if it made it to a book, or nowadays, made it to a Youtube clip, there must be some truth. Bullshit. There are plenty of crazy, stupid people that write things down and pass them off as the truth. There are plenty of smart people with alternative agendas who manipulate with words and play on people's ignorance and fear. These motives can be for profit, or far more sinister. Hopefully, as you get older you learn how to examine and process information in a way that helps you to form opinions based on fact, not propaganda.
Okay. Thanks man. I appreciate your time.
RELATED: Talib Kweli On the Life and Legacy of Nelson Mandela
RELATED: Interview: Talib Kweli Talks About Being a 'Prisoner of Conscious'