Most rappers want to tell you about where they are from, but few can take you there as completely as this compact performer from Brooklyn. One highlight of a rare European appearance is a zingy run through hip-hop classics and familiar samples. Talib Kweli freestyles over them all as if at a block party in a New York project.
His problem, though, is not so much where he is at, but where he is heading. Kweli emerged in the late-1990s as part of Black Star, with the brilliant Mos Def, and remained underground until he took the major-label shilling for 2007's Eardrum, a rambling sprawl of an album, confused by big-name involvement from Will.i.am and Justin Timberlake. The founder of his own Blacksmith label may rail against inequality, but from early on has tried to dodge the label of conscious hip-hop artist.
To pursue that agenda, he has titled his next solo album Prisoner of Consciousness, but before that comes a more low-key release. Kweli has returned to his side-project, Reflection Eternal, with Cincinnati producer DJ Hi-Tek – last heard 10 years ago. For Revolutions Per Minute, due in April, the artist who can count on contributions from the likes of Kanye West and Nas has gone back to basics. Live, the rapper performs solo with only his tour DJ on a bare stage and, frankly, this is all Kweli needs.
When lines are flowing in quick succession, his rhymes and rhythms are intoxicating, especially when DJ Chaps cuts off the backing tracks for Kweli to perform a cappella. Even on the more hard-hitting tracks, volume is expertly judged, so you hear the rapper clearly – and it pays to pay attention. On his only UK date of this run, he has a lot to get through, squeezing in number after number and little of the in-between patter that slows down momentum at so many hip-hop events. Kweli regularly runs tracks together, both the earlier album Eardrum's better tunes – that mix clever word-play with sharp hooks – and promising cuts from Revolutions.
At his best, Kweli fires high-velocity verses over Hi-Tek's no-nonsense productions built on sparse beats and warm soul samples. He is technically impressive, without taking the genre anywhere new. Nor does the son of two professors have much to say of contemporary relevance, bar a curt "Tony Blair is a criminal" tossed into a wider tirade against politicians.