For fans of Talib Kweli’s brainy yet accessible rhymes, it can be hard to believe that 10 full years have passed since he first emerged as one of hip-hop’s most promising talents. Last month, the Brooklyn emcee joined fellow veterans Public Enemy, Cypress Hill, the Wu-Tang Clan, and Rage Against the Machine on New York’s Randall’s Island for the Rock the Bells festival, performing songs from each of his LPs — including his fifth, Eardrum, which hits shelves Aug. 21 as the first full-length release on Kweli’s newly formed Blacksmith Records. (Check out lead single ”Listen!!!”) After a rain-soaked encore set with sometime collaborator Mos Def, Kweli headed backstage to chat with EW.com about making records, starting labels, and how his perspective has changed with age.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You and Mos Def mostly played material from your 1998 album as Black Star. How did that feel?
TALIB KWELI: Me and Mos perform together all the time. This was like our third show in a week. And it’s a good vibe — it’s real organic, it’s real natural. That’s my partner for life, you know?
Tell me about what you’re trying to do with Eardrum.
That album has to set the standard for what we’re going to do with Blacksmith. It’s gotta be the jet fuel that propels our jet into the sky.
What message do you want to send about who you are?
I named the album Eardrum because I wanted people to focus on the musicality of what I do. I get a lot of props for being, like, a deep lyricist, but what I do is much broader than that. You wouldn’t even know how deep my lyrics are if it wasn’t for my choice of music.
And what’s the musical sound that you’re aiming for?
The hip-hop I grew up on. That’s why we’ve got Pete Rock on there, we’ve got people who were influenced by that sound, like Hi-Tek, Kanye [West], Just Blaze, will.i.am. They’re big producers, they’re influenced by the sound.
You’ve got some cool vocal guests, too. I love the song with Norah Jones.
Oh, yeah. Madlib did that. Norah was very dope, the way she came and blessed the track.
And you have a very Southern-sounding song with UGK, which feels like a change of pace for you.
Well, if you follow my career — mixtapes and the whole thing — then you get it. But if you only know the singles, then it might throw you off.
What’s it like making music today, compared to the start of your career?
Now I have a lot more experience and resources, so that helps out. And the focus is really about just trying to grow as a musician. When I first came out, it was about, ”I want to be the nicest emcee.” And it’s not so much about that anymore.
What’s it about, then?
Just trying to make songs that stand the test of time. The purists are going to hate me for this, but songs that you can appreciate whether you listen to hip-hop or not. But that are rooted in hip-hop.
Do you feel like there are other hip-hop artists working on that same level?
I don’t know. I mean, there are artists who I respect. I respect young, new artists who are going for theirs, like a Lil Boosie, or somebody from New York, like a Papoose or an Uncle Murda. I respect Immortal Technique. We are all part of the same struggle. Artists in hip-hop have a lot more similarities than differences, so I try to respect all artists.
Is being an entrepreneur with Blacksmith a more important goal for you now?
It’s not a goal. It’s what I am at this point. But it’s something that I need to do in order to sustain my career. I’ve added all I can — not all I can, but I’ve put a lot of work in as an artist. So now I feel like I want to expand what I can add to music.
Do you see yourself continuing as an artist, then? Do you have more music left in you?
Oh, sure. Definitely. I got a lot.