Few emcees have been more celebrated in the past decade than Talib Kweli. The Brooklyn rapper rose relatively quickly from his underground fame at Rawkus to becoming fairly well recognized among the mainstream dwellers. Despite the fact that his most "underground" record (Reflection Eternal's Train of Thought), is his best selling, Talib has spent his last three solo albums trying to buck stereotypes and make the music that his core fans don't think he should be making. The result has been inconsistent albums that don't come near his potential as an artist.
It may have been a ridiculous elitist notion that he shouldn't work with The Neptunes, but those fans were right as the results were atrocious. Instead of just doing what he does best, Kweli was too busy trying to shed his backpacker label and that only succeeded in doing one thing; hurting the music. Eardrum, thankfully, has Kweli comfortable in his own skin and making the kind of music everyone but him knew he should have been making all along. Even better, he has improved tremendously in the other areas of emceeing. While he has been unquestionably a premier lyricist, his flow and delivery in the past has often been awkward at best and horrific at worst.
Kweli opens with "Everything Man," an understated and soulful Madlib production and sounds right at home. He finishes off his usual visceral rhymes with a telling line: "I tried to fit it in the same rhyme/but realized I couldn't be everything to everyone at the time." With the proceeding songs, that is just what he does. Sticking to his comfort zone without skimping on the panache, Talib breezes through the album with remarkable consistency (and skill of course). The build up to "NY Weather Report" is type ill, and Talib does his part with lines like; "you ain't a rider and you hustlin backwards/too many equate success with imitatin these crackas/so our kids lookin up to drug dealers and rappers." He hooks up with Just Blaze again for the LP's gem, the choir filled "Hostile Gospel." It's his new "Get By" without sounding like it is trying to be (unlike "I Try" from Beautiful Struggle).
Never one needing guests to help rip a song, Kweli still calls on some friends to put their touch on things. Jean Grae comes through to talk smack on the energetic "Say Something." "Country Cousins" with UGK is a real bright spot for Kweli as he rips his verse with a little southern flow. The best collab comes when a legendary lyricist joins the soon to be legend. KRS and Talib just dismantle "The Perfect Beat." Can't forget the obligatory Kanye appearance on "In The Mood," which is cool, but a bit of a letdown as it isn't one of the album's strongest tracks.
While Talib may not really need help for a hot 16, he is served well by some help on the hooks (as most rappers are). There is no shortage of vocalists lending their chops to Ear Drum. The best comes in the form of Norah Jones' sultry hook on the incredible Madlib-produced "Soon The New Day." Not to be forgotten is the sole Reflection Eternal joint and mixtape favorite "More or Less," featuring the usual Talib magic and Dion killing the hook. The always reliable will.i.am (well, when it isn't his own song), comes through for "Hot Thing," which is just so smooth. Even the Musiq Soulchild-assisted "Oh My Stars" that starts out hella soft ends up been real funky.
Unfortunately, the dream team with Talib hooking up with Pete Rock for a couple tracks ends up fizzling out. "Holy Moly" is alright, but nothing to write home about, and "Stay Around" is butchered by Kweli's terrible flow. Ironically, the very same song where he bitches about fans telling him what to do, including "you should rap on beat." Uhh, yeah. Just as he says himself on the blazing Kwame production - "Listen."
Ideally this album is between a 4 and a 4.5, but since we don't have 4 and a quarter and Common's superior album got a 4.5 this is what we've got. There is still room for improvement, but this largely the album from Kweli that everyone has been waiting for. He sticks to production that fits his style rather than try and force himself outside of the box, and pens an album full of lyrics that remove any doubt as to why he has the reputation that he does. Other aspects of his emcee game may leave something to be desired at times, but anyone with functioning ear drums should know that this man is one of the greatest writers of our generation. Just listen.