We've all heard those hyperbolic pop-music revelations: "The first time I heard 'Purple Haze'/'Born to Run'/'Anarchy in the UK,'" proclaims the aging, wistful hero of some boomer/Blank Generation nostalgia essay, "I had to pull my car over/change my underwear/immediately rebel against my parents." Me, I took years to get used to techno and even slept on the Beastie Boys until about 1993, so I never really got to experience what it's like to see the light so hard and so fast from a source so unexpected. When, I sighed, would I have my chance to get struck by lightning?
My plea was answered on a winter Saturday afternoon back in 1998, when I got clobbered in the back of the head with a cinderblock of a single titled "Twice Inna Lifetime." For five minutes I delayed coming out of the snow and chill into the relative warmth of a University Avenue fast-food emporium just so I could stay plugged into my Walkman's AM radio and catch this anthem in its entirety, an epiphany so majestic it made harps sound hardcore. When one of the MCs declared, "You stoppin' us is preposterous/Like an androgynous misogynist/You pickin' the wrong time/Steppin' to me when I'm in my prime/Like Optimus," I knew that the record from which this track emerged--Mos Def and Talib Kweli are Black Star--had to be in my possession before the sun went down.
The men primarily responsible for that moment of revelation were MC Talib Kweli and DJ Hi-Tek, a duo that had been working together since 1997, when Kweli guest-spotted on the Hi-Tek-produced record Doom from Cincinnati hip-hop group Mood. The partnership clicked so well that Kweli would make regular trips to Cincinnati (or Hi-Tek to Brooklyn) just to collaborate on tracks, culminating with their landmark Rawkus debut 12-inch "Fortified Live," recorded under the name Reflection Eternal. One of the MCs who guested on that 12-inch just happened to be underground champion Mos Def, whose presence led to the Black Star album and widespread national exposure. Now Reflection Eternal have a self-titled full-length of their own out on Rawkus, and it's an all-out masterwork, full of stunning wordplay and seratonin-spiking beats and...Nelson Mandela.
Yes, the first voice you hear when you press play is that of the most courageous and inspiring political prisoner of the 20th Century, declaring "When in Africa chilling out, I listen to Talib Kweli and DJ Hi-Tek." Seventeen tracks later, you hear the voice of another type of prisoner entirely--Hammer bite victim Rick James. And there's Reflection Eternal's modus operandi in a nutshell: It's conscious body-rockin', Emma Goldman's old saw "If I can't dance, I don't want to be a part of your revolution" translated into 21st-century funk.
Like a lot of the acts that follow that creed, Hi-Tek tends to stick to the more tried-and-true elements of beat-forging (emphasis on "tried"), which means he's maybe six months ahead of where DJ Premier was in 1993. Compared with the murky deconstructed beats of Company Flow or the postmodern funhouse complexities of Mike Ladd's Infesticons, I could even dare to call a lot of Reflection Eternal, well, "safe." When you skim the surface, Hi-Tek's production veers hazardously close to the gray area of "rocks but stagnates," echoing Primo like The Magnificent Seven did Kurosawa, dropping jazz vibes and '69 soul over subwoofer-damaging beats.
But that snap judgment wouldn't account for the true lead instrument, the one element that ties the production together and brings it to the next level: Kweli's voice. When you first hear his flow, it sounds youthful but sage, working the lyrics into a refined delivery that ranks among the best in rap. Upon closer inspection, Kweli's voice begins to mesh with the music, and that combination projects an aura of mellow fury and relaxed toughness--a full dynamic range of emotions. And as for the words that voice shapes...damn. No MC matches Kweli's ability to, in his words, "smack 'em in the face with a metaphor." Kweli uses the word like more often than Casey Kasem as the voice of Shaggy. Where lesser MCs mutter weary boasts or dick-as-gun innuendo, Kweli threatens to "Erase you/Trace you like you're cotton mouth and we're peppermint Altoids" ("Move Somethin'"). And if there may be no more sobering playa evaluation than "These cats drink champagne to toast death and pain/Like slaves on a ship talkin' about who got the flyest chains" (from "Africa Dream").
Kweli's delivery gets up in your ears, and even lines that look like throwaways on the page come across as sharper than infomercial cutlery. It says something that a line as nondescript-looking as the chorus to "This Means You"--"You need to get up right now and move with this/Yes, this means you"--turns out to be one of the record's highlights. Kweli and Mos Def shout it in unison as if each word had an exclamation point after it. And those are just the party rhymes. When he tells a story, his character portraits are stark and moving enough to make me try to decide whether Kweli is the next KRS-One or the next Ralph Ellison.
Sure, there's no shortage of conscious-but-booty-moving semi-underground MCs these days, what with Blackalicious and Common and the Roots spearheading (no pun intended, Mr. Franti) a coast-to-Midwest-to-coast movement. And like most of that movement's latest works, Reflection Eternal is crammed with the expected Rakim references, lyrical virtuosity, and "You ain't my bitch, you're my woman" love songs. But when a hip-hop record features a shout-out from Gil Scott Heron--a man who, in a recent Newsday article, claimed to dislike rap because of its lack of substance--then you know you've got something special.