Review: Talib Kweli & Hi-Tek

(Above: “Back Again” from the forthcoming Talib Kweli/Hi-Tek album.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Ten years ago, rapper Talib Kweli and DJ Hi-Tek united to produce two of the genre’s landmark albums. Teaming with Mos Def they created “Black Star;” on their own they released “Train of Thought.”  The duo celebrated their past and future before a nearly full Granada Theater in Lawrence, Kan. on Sunday night.

The set started with a new song which showcased Kweli’s dense delivery and more-words-per-breath approach. From there the evening got more familiar with “Move Something” and “Eternalists,” two of several cuts to come off “Train of Thought.”

With barely a breather in between, the songs came in rapid-fire succession: “Too Late,” “Definition,” “Africa Dreams,” “Love Language,” “Down for the Count,” “Respiration,” “Memories Live.” Each number brought a big response -– a sea of hands and chorus of vocals.

Early in the set the pair switched spots, with Kweli on the turntables and Hi-Tek prowling the front of the stage in rhyme. The performances were passable, but neither as in his element. Kweli later ceded the mic again to DJ a 10-minute medley of songs Hi-Tek has produced for others. Most of the cuts were drawn from his trilogy of “Hi-Teknology” albums.

Hi-Tek was just as accommodating as DJ, working in ample Kweli hits produced by others like will.i.am’s “Hot Thing,” Just Blaze’s “Hostile Gospel,” Madlib’s “Over the Counter.” The room broke into pandemonium when Hi-Tek dropped into a loop of Kanye West’s “Get ‘Em High.” Instead of reprising the verse he cut for West’s album, though, Kweli freestyled, dropping references to the University of Kansas. It may have been pandering, but it was very effective.

For past tours, Kweli has brought backing vocalists and other onstage help. None of that was necessary this night. With Hi-Tek behind the turntables and on a riser, the MC had all the support and camaraderie he needed.

Live hip-hop is a deservedly suspicious beast. Many an MC has been cut to size by a performance that fails to replicate the studio magic and a DJ who cannot conjure the vibe. Hi-Tek’s varied samples, encompassing African rhythms, quiet storm, reggaeton and more, kept the music sonically interesting, while Kweli continually proved his microphone prowess.

The main set ended with two of the evening’s strongest songs. “Back Again” was another new song. Laced with African drums and R&B vocals it sounded like a “Train of Thought” outtake. The crowd wasn’t familiar enough to be singing along yet, but before Kweli’s next swing through town they will be. The audience had no problem, though, chiming in for “Get By,” Kweli’s biggest number and set closer.

After 70 minutes the concert morphed into an after-party. Audience members were invited onstage while Kweli and Hi-Tek played past and current hip-hop favorites. After a couple numbers, the stage was so crowded the headlining duo were barely visible.

Once the after-party started, the crowd split two ways: half took to the stage and the rest of us, faced with a drive back to Kansas City in a hard rainstorm, headed for the door.

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