1. Hey Talib? Given the shoddy quality of your solo output, maybe you shouldn’t be slinging around stuff like “Only using 10 percent of my mental on instrumentals” on the opening track.
2. Anyway, this is his second-best solo album but also his most overrated. Trust me: I wanted to love this. One of my all-time favorite rappers, rapping alongside a revolving door of solid features in Jean Grae, UGK, Norah Jones and Justin Timberlake? One of my all-time favorite rappers, rapping a revolving door of beats from top-tier producers in Madlib, Pete Rock, Kanye West, Hi-Tek (who supplied Talib Kweli with the beats for his best album as Reflection Eternal)? Just reading that over sets Eardrum up to be Talib Kweli’s magnum opus.
Except … it’s not, and even if we didn’t get several albums of proof after 2007, Eardrum solidifies the gradual decline of Kweli’s output that began he embarked on his solo career in 2002. Quality? Solid album, distinguished by some great beats (usually by a young Kanye West), but it wasn’t exactly a Train of Thought. The Beautiful Struggle? Sometimes awful attempt at going mainstream by dumbing down the lyrics and unnecessary/awkward genre merging; Talib Kweli was never going to a mainstream rapper: his flow too wordy, his topics too pretentious, and hearing him try to be one was heartbreaking. A few high-profile features aside (Justin Timberlake in bonus track “The Nature”; will.i.am, who was trying to carve out a more serious slice of pie around that time anyway), Eardrum was a step back from that sound, and in other words, a step in the right direction. But two major issues: (1) the album’s consistency gets wearying over the course of the album’s insufferable length, and (2) as for the consistency, put it this way: if the average track on Train of Thought was good, even great, the average track on Eardrum is merely decent and never great.
3. Beats-wise, plenty to sink your ears to. Some really understated and flat-out gorgeous beats: the African percussion in the introductory skit of Madlib’s “Everything Man” to the vocal sample floating in the background (“Feel it…”) of the hooky keyboard line; how Pete Rock’s melodic line seems to be in a state of ever-resolving ascent in the shuffle-beat of “Holy Moly” (at this rate, in about a hundred years, there’s going to more classic hip-hop songs sampling Elton John than classic Elton John songs); Terrace Martin’s spacey beat on “Give ‘Em Hell,” with its multi-voiced choruses. Rapping-wise? It comes to a head on “Say Something” and “Country Cousins”: Jean Grae demolishes with a more threatening attitude than anyone here (“Yeah, open your mouth, say somethin’, I fuckin’ dare you / Chokin’ you out ’til you can’t suck any air through”) and UGK’s presence on “Country Cousins” inspires Talib’s best flow on the album (“Growing up in Brooklyn, shit I thought that everybody talked this way / Raised on Rakim and Run-D.M.C., so I thought that everybody walked this way”). On the other end of the album, Talib Kweli makes use of some inventive rhymes on “Oh My Stars”: “Babies have babies for the welfare coupons / Dudes on the radio rapping, them cats is lukewarm / I get up on it, spit up on it like a new born” (it goes on).
4. There isn’t much in the way of bad (stuff like “Soon the New Day” isn’t exactly what I want Talib Kweli to be making, but it sports Norah Jones and a Madlib beat). That being said, the choruses of “Hostile Gospel Pt. 1 (Deliver Us)” (way too over-the-top, replete with the problematic opening lines “I call these rappers baby seals, cause they club you to death / I could call ‘em Navy SEALs, cause they government feds”) and “Hot Thing” (too cloying) leave something to be desired. As for the bonus tracks, you can swap stuff out for “Go With Us” and “Hostile Gospel Pt. 2 (Deliver Me)” if you so desire, but “The Nature” is a 5 minute waste.
5. Goes without saying that this is Kweli’s last worthy album (though Gravitas’ “State of Grace” is better than anything here, so be sure to check that out). And by 2007’s big-name hip-hop standards, this one’s better than T.I. vs. T.I.P., Ghostface Killah’s The Big Doe Rehab, Scarface’s Made or UGK’s Underground Kingz, but worse than Jay-Z’s American Gangster or Kanye West’s Graduation (even if I admittedly would probably rather spin this one having played those two out). Low bars, I guess.
6. One of the few albums that I can readily think of where the whole is assuredly less than the sum of its parts.