Talib Kweli appreciates all fan support, but be careful on how you compliment him. Habits of the Heart, the Brooklyn emcee’s latest album with Philly vocalist Res as the duo Idle Warship, is a poppy, dance-ready departure from the soulful, boom bap formula he’s perfected since the late 1990s. So if you give his new record props by using the oft-abused phrase “real hip-hop,” you need more people. “If you … told me [Idle Warship] was ‘true hip-hop,’ you didn’t listen to it. You’re just supporting your idea of what you like about me, and I’m not mad at that,” Kweli explains. “But it’s definitely misguided to say, ‘Idle Warship is a hip-hop album.’” In an interview with VIBE, Talib gives the scoop on debunking genre myths with Res, why the new Black Star records with Mos Def are unlikely to result in an album, and explains why boycotting Tyler Perry for casting Kim Kardashian is hustling backwards. — William Ketchum III
You’ve done entire projects with pretty notable names. You did the Black Star record with Mos Def, the Reflection Eternal albums with Hi-Tek, and Liberation with Madlib. What kind of things do you look for in a partner when you’re teaming up for an entire album?
Integrity and the relationship. I was in Cincinnatti working with Mood, and just kept picking Hi-Tek’s beats. Mos Def and I, our style and our musical interests, where we lived at, and even the fact that we have children of the same age is what made Black Star happen. Res has always been around, and we wanted to get out of the box people placed us into with this project. With Madlib, I was working on Eardrum, and there were too many Madlib beats I wanted to pick for the album to not credit him. That’s how Liberation got created.
Like you said, this album is much different from what you guys have done in the past. Many people may not see you as the conscious, boom bap soulful rapper, but what box is Res in?
Res is someone who’s looked at as alternative soul, neo-soul, or some sort of weird, rock-based thing, but it’s hard to define. Since she’s from Philly and is Black, people automatically say, “She’s neo-soul,” but she’s not. There’s nothing neo-soul about what she’s done. Since she works with me, people say, “Oh she’s hip-hop soul,” but she’s not hip-hop soul. Res is really her own type of rock thing. But that [causes fan restrictions] too, because she does the softer, alternative rock thing, and sometimes people don’t see how she can hear to a club beat or an uptempo dance type of thing. So that’s what Idle does for her.
So what kind of feedback have you gotten from fans who have placed you in those boxes?
I was a little worried about the feedback, but I’m excited. The people who took a chance on the record really seem to love it, and even the people who expected the worst are pleasantly surprised. This is the feedback I’ve gotten, I haven’t seen much negative feedback. I expected people, at the very least, to be honest, like, “OK, Kweli is trying something different, and it’s not really for me.” But I’m not even getting that—I’m getting people that say, “I’m really enjoying it.”
I think part of the positive reception is that the album sounds really organic. It doesn’t just sound like you were trying to be different, but it’s how that genre is actually made. A lot of rappers are trying to expand outside of conventional rap sounds now, but it sounds forced.
That was really important for us, for it to sound organic. It’s very, very important that people don’t look at this as a money grab. People see me as an underground artist, and this is underground hip-hop. This music probably has a bigger chance of achieving pop success than most of the stuff I’ve put out through my career. So it may be easy for people to look at this like, “They’re switching it up because it ain’t working for them,” and I don’t want people to come away from it like that. Hip-hop has been very good to me. I paid for this record myself, and I wouldn’t be in the position to fund something fun and ballsy like this, if I wasn’t successful with what I was doing in hip-hop.
This isn’t to take away from anything I’m doing. If this isn’t for you, you can pick up Gutter Rainbows, or Prisoner of Consciousness, which is coming out the top of next year. It’s really, truly how that music was supposed to sound. We focused very much on making sure it was authentic, sincere and genuine. There’s a song on the end as a bonus cut called “Burning Desire,” that’s on if you bought it on iTunes. The reason that’s a bonus cut is because that’s actually the song I think crosses that line. When I hear that track, to me, it sounds like what’s trending in the club. Even though I love what we did on it, and I was proud of what we did on it, I was hesitant to put it on the album, so it’s a bonus cut.
On Habits Of The Heart, she’s really the most prominent voice than she is on your solo records, when she’s just complementing a track or two. Was that a different process for you, to not be the main voice on these songs that you usually are?
Yeah, but there’s a lot of different strands to what you just said. Idle started, from my perspective, as a showcase for Res. I’m a huge Res fan, and to me she never got her due, so people don’t know how dope she is. So a lot of me falling back on the record is to showcase her. I’m more famous than she is, but I wanted people to really appreciate what she brings to the table, and I don’t want it to depend on me being witty or clever in a verse for people to get into it. I wanted Res to be the hook, and I think she did a good job on the album.
You also mentioned that you’re in the studio with Mos working on Black Star records. What is it like recording with him regularly again, instead of just one or two joints for each others’ albums?
Well that’s what we’re doing. We don’t have plans for an album; we do songs here and there, and if we like something, we put it out. The music we’re putting out next year isn’t necessarily going to be in album format, it’s going to be song by song. When the Black Star album came out, people were excited about albums. But these fans aren’t excited about albums. Research points to the fact that they’re excited for individual artists, individual movements, and individual things. It’ll switch back at some point, but right now, the focus is songs. … We put out this latest one because we were feeling it.
You also put the album on Spotify before it actually released; that’s actually where I’m listening to it. What was the reasoning behind that, and how do you feel about that decision weeks later?
Point blank, it’s a challenging thing to get people to understand that this is not Talib Kweli featuring Res, this is not Res featuring Talib Kweli, this is not hip-hop, this is not neo-soul. No matter what I say, it’s been hard to get people to understand that. The best way to let people know is to just let them hear it. That’s what was behind the decision to put the album on Spotify.
…I don’t know if it’s going to translate into sales, but what it has done is get people to hear the album and understand it. So when people are excited about the album, they can now know what they’re excited about. Before the Spotify thing, a lot of the excitement was just over people being fans of me and Res. … If they truly indeed bought it, I’m happy, and I don’t call them out for it. Hey man, you’re supporting what I do. But if you listened to Idle Warship and told me it was “true hip-hop,” you didn’t listen to it. You’re just supporting your idea of what you like about me, and I’m not mad at that. But it’s definitely misguided to say, “Idle Warship is a hip-hop album.” … Some of the support of Idle Warship is so glowing and so gushing, and then they put at the end of it, “Real hip-hop.” And I’m like, “Aw, they don’t get it.”
Got a random question outside of music. Tyler Perry casted Kim Kardashian in his upcoming film, The Marriage Counselor. As a result, some of his fans are threatening to boycott the film, and/or his work—
That’s the dumbest thing I’ve heard all day. I don’t know what the film is about, but she may be perfect for the role. Maybe she’s not perfect for the role, but he cast her because when you put her in a movie, people are going to come see her. Either way, it’s a win-win for him; either way, it’s a good decision on his part. I’ve got respect for any businessman who employs some of my favorite artists, from Cicely Tyson to Taraji P. Henson, all of these women have gotten checks from Tyler Perry. Tyler Perry has been supporting the Black actress more than anyone in Hollywood. Whether you agree with him or not, whether you like his movies or not. But we’re not talking about quality plots or storylines and this and that. But the idea that you boycott? First of all, if you’re the type of person who cares about race issues, then you need to respect that man for what he’s done for Black actors. I’m talking as a working artist, not as a community leader. Personally, I’m not a fan per se of his films, but I damn sure know why they work. And if you are a fan of his films, you don’t have any business worried about if he casts Kim Kardashian, that’s a great idea.