Why Rap Needed Talib Kweli's Opus 'Quality'

A look at how the album brought variety to hip-hop on its 15th anniversary.

Rap was in a strange place in 2002. The conversation was dominated by the hit-centric hip-hop of Nelly and Ja Rule, with their onslaught of R&B hooks and chart-topping consistency. The lane for rappers who put lyricism first and took the title of MC more seriously like Talib Kweli seemed to be shrinking—and fast. On Kweli’s debut album Quality, the Brooklyn rapper had to answer the question most artists cannot—and have not—figured out: How does one stay true to their craft in an industry that craves one particular style?

Quality was released in a year where 14 rap albums went Platinum, a genre accomplishment that became the new normal in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. In a 2003 interview with Davey D, Kweli spoke on the state of rap and the underground. “I’m more a fan of getting together with brothers like Nelly or whoever is considered rap and whatever’s considered hyip-hop and putting it together and seeing what comes out of it together. Because every single dude whether he’s on a commercial beat, on the radio or whatever, he started out loving hip-hop culture the same way a hip-hop purist or somebody who’s considered underground did.”

Kweli stuck to his mindset that rap should have a variety of styles and decided not to take the path most expected: fabricating a musical swerve, risking critical failure for commercial success—something like Lupe Fiasco’s Lasers. On his debut album Quality, he took the most difficult route; Kweli created an album that made it clear success on the charts was a priority as much as not abandoning the core elements of his music: topical rap and production rooted in R&B, soul and jazz.

Kweli’s work in the underground is lauded. Critical success was something that, to this point, hadn’t alluded Kweli. His two collaborative albums released prior to his debut—1998’s Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Blackstar and Train of Thought with producer Hi-Tek—made waves but when Kweli announced his solo debut, some fans were disappointed by the absence of Hi-Tek, who they felt brought versatility and a rawness that couldn’t be replaced. Instead, Kweli opted for the revolving door tactic on the production side, garnering a team of rap’s best samplists: Kanye West, DJ Quik, J Dilla, DJ Scratch, Ayatollah, Megahertz, Supa Dave West, Dahoud Darien and The Soulquarians. Quality doesn’t stray from Kweli’s reliance on samples; instead, it provides a project brighter in tone, one that’s more upbeat and delves further into Kweli’s love of R&B.

On Quality, there aren’t just moments of R&B, it’s intertwined throughout entire tracks. Kweli easily could have called in a team of buzzing songstresses (Ashanti, Kelly Rowland, Beyonce, Jennifer Lopez, Kelis, to name a few from the era) to properly fulfill the “hook, verse, hook” formula that many rappers at the time were using to plug in and shoot out hits. But, Kweli’s infatuation with the genre was deeper than that. On “Get By,” the album’s most popular track, Kanye West production and a Nina Simone sample bring a hypnotizing underlying harmonization and adds to the gravity of Kweli’s lyrics like, “Yo I activism attacking the system/The Blacks and Latins in prison.” Another standout, the Bilal-featured “Talk To You (Lil Darlin),” completely deviates from the rap/R&B structure of the time; the track starts with a minute of soulful harmonizing before Kweli kicks off his verse. Less than halfway through, Bilal gets free reign for nearly three minutes for his best Eddie Kendricks-inspired tangent over the Soulquarians’ orchestral backdrop.

Kweli has a knack for making songs seem larger than they seem; he brings the album to cinematic peaks on multiple occasions. “Shock Body,” with its powerful Gap Mangione sample handled by DJ Scratch, is momentous enough to fit in an epic, horn-filled film score like Aaron Copland’s work on Spike Lee’s He Got Game. Scratch’s fast paced drums and the faint background “La la la” vocals add a richness to the production that only some MCs would be able to prosper over. Kweli is up for the task, energized and tossing out quotables (“Wack niggas get passed over so much they seem Jewish” and “Stay hot like I’m bluish with the flame”). The Kanye West-produced “Guerilla Monsoon Rap” is another vivid moment on the album, thanks to a vibrant Chi Lites sample that transitions into a gritty foundation for a team of MCs including Kanye, Pharoahe Monch, and Black Thought to have a breathless, shit talking marathon on.

Even lines like Kweli addressing the commercial rap gold rush at the time (“The real MC that your favorite rapper used to be”) and glimmers of Kanye’s future success as a rapper (“Nigga you get smacked til you blue black/And you give me dap like true dat”) hit harder over the Kanye production. “With respect to brothers like JAY-Z and other brothers whose music I do listen to and do enjoy, I wanted to take a Kanye track with that sound and put Pharaoh and Black Thought on it to just let us shine as lyricists to show that we get these titles and these prefixes in front of our names, like Underground or Conscious, but given the same bed of music, we could shine equally or better,” he told Davey D in an interview.

Quality’s most questionable moments come when the brightness is exchanged for a more downbeat sound. But the impressive thing about the project is that even the weaker songs still have outstanding spots, like Kweli on “The Proud” as he delves into issues that still affect America today (“I remember Oklahoma when they put out the blaze/And put Islamic terrorist bombing on the front page”). “Where Do We Go” somewhat falls flat, mostly in part to the lo-fi J Dilla production that doesn’t seem to fit, but the late producer gets redemption on the soothing “Stand To the Side,” on what sounds like a mellowed Neptunes beat.

Ja Rule’s The Last Temptation—which was released on the same day as Quality—went platinum with a chart-topping single that year. Nelly’s Nellyville went sextuple platinum within a couple of months and birthed two No. 1 singles. (“Dilemma” featuring Kelly Rowland became one of the highest selling singles of all time.) Kweli was aware of what was dominating the rap conversation and instead of forcing his way into territories unknown, he found a niche for his artistry within the genre. His debut may have dropped at the “end of an era,” but Kweli proved there will forever be a place for lyricism and Black music in rap, no matter what the charts demand.

You can stream Talib Kweli's entire discography here