talib kweli eardrum (blacksmith/warner broTHERS)

Rock the Bells

when 8/26, 3 PM

where Charter One Pavilion, Northerly Island at Burnham Harbor, 1300 S. Linn White Drive

price $41

info 312-540-2000 or 312-559-1212

more See the Treatment in Section 3 for more info.

Talib Kweli’s been sounding pretty defensive lately. Read his MySpace blog, visit the boards at okayplayer.com, or just go to one of his shows and you’ll find him talking back to fans who feel he’s lost his way. “I don’t make music for the fans. I never have, and god willing I never will,” he wrote in a blog post last year. “The true music fan respects the artist who is honest with him or herself . . . once I start to do it for the sake of the fans, then I will really fall off and become irrelevant.”

Kweli’s never put up serious numbers–2004’s The Beautiful Struggle was his most successful release, peaking at number 14 on the Billboard Top 200–but he’s always been propped by the die-hard coffee-shop and backpacker crowds. So griping isn’t a good look for him: checking people for mouthing off about his sound’s evolution clashes with his anti-establishment, pro-freedom-of–expression proletariat image. We want to hear Kweli bitch about the man, not about fans. And the truth is that anyone who makes a living off his art isn’t making it just for himself.

Kweli made his bones in 1998, when he teamed up with Mos Def to release Black Star, which had modest sales but was a critical success. The production appealed to fans of De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest, and both partners-in-rhyme demonstrated a lyrical dexterity that was hard to come by in the Puff Daddy era.

Two years later Kweli cemented his status as the thinking man’s MC when he dropped his magnum opus Train of Thought as one-half of Reflection Eternal with DJ Hi-Tek, then a lesser-known talent from Cincinnati who’d also produced much of Black Star. The marriage of Kweli and Hi-Tek was like Gang Starr 2.0, except instead of the producer outshining the MC he made him look just as good. With songs like “Memories Live,” where Kweli raps about his entry into the music industry, and “For Women,” a dramatic ode to strong black women, Train was one of the last hurrahs of cerebral New York boom-bap; soon after the nation would embrace the minimalist swagger-rap of the south.

But when a different crew of producers was ushered in for 2002’s Quality, fans hit the Internet to protest. The singles “Get By” and “Good to You,” both produced by some guy called Kanye West, got a ton of play, but Quality wasn’t as cohesive as Kweli’s previous collaborative work and his fans let him know it.

Things only got worse with the release of Kweli’s next album, The Beautiful Struggle, on which the normally rapier-tongued rapper seemed winded by all his past lyrical exercise, letting loose groaners like “And let the melody carry me through the jealousy / And we can cruise like Tom and Penelope.” It was as if his hunger for the mic had dissipated.

Perhaps his fans’ complaints finally got to him-, or maybe he visited a life coach, because we saw hints of a revived Kweli in January with the release of Liberation, an album originally available as a free download from the Blacksmith label Web site and now out on CD. Made in collaboration with Stones Throw producer Madlib, it ranks as one of hip-hop’s best albums of the year so far–even if it’s still no Black Star or Train.

Now Kweli’s just dropped Eardrum, his best solo outing yet. There’s a whole raft of producers contributing on the boards, ranging from relative unknowns like DJ Khalil and Kwame to commercial hip-hop darlings Will.i.am and Kanye West to the legendary Pete Rock. So many producers on one album–15 in all–can make for a disjointed mess (see Biggie’s posthumous 2000 release, Born Again, or Kweli’s 2005 EP, Right About Now), but it doesn’t here; there are virtually no throwaway cuts.

This is largely thanks to Madlib, who returns for three tracks that set the overall tone, laying down a gloomy sonic atmosphere that suits Kweli’s flow and political subject matter well. Madlib’s sample-heavy production kicks off the opener, “Everything Man,” where Kweli laments, over a haunting heartbeat thump, “I can’t be everything to everyone at the same time.” Yep, more bitching. But at least it’s over a tight beat.

Kweli’s also minimized his sometimes grating simile-heavy battle rhymes (see “Say Something” with Jean Grae) in favor of bigger issues. “Give ‘Em Hell” denounces religious fundamentalism (“If we’re all God’s children, then what’s the word of the reverend worth?”), and “Country Cousins,” an unlikely pairing with southern legends Underground Kingz, celebrates the Brooklyn native’s southern roots. But “Stay Around,” a standout track thanks to Pete Rock’s trademark beats and horns, finds Kweli again defending his music. (In the first verse he moderates a mock conference with fans who lay down demands like “You should rap about this / You should rap about that” and “Never, ever get your mack on, please.”)

Kweli’s public bellyaching suggests he refuses to accept that grassroots fans love him for the sound that made him famous and that any deviation from that sound had better be stellar and at least somewhat reminiscent of his early work. Jay-Z is one of just a few rap artists who won back the respect of his original fan base after years of pumping out radio-friendly schlock; he even acknowledged that he dumbed down his music in the wake of his seminal debut, Reasonable Doubt, to sell records.

Kweli has managed to hang on to most of his core fans, who still buy his records and support his constant touring–he’ll be in Chicago August 26 for the Rock the Bells tour (see the Treatment in Section 3)–and given recent appearances in a TV ad for NCAA basketball and the video game Marc Ecko’s Getting Up: Contents Under Pressure, the mainstream seems ready to embrace him too. Regardless of his fans, it’s clear Kweli will keep moving forward musically and leave no challenge unanswered.

For more on music, see our blogs Crickets and Post No Bills at chicagoreader.com.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Talib Kewll photo by Nabil.