Kanye West's The College Dropout might have been the best thing to hit hip-hop this year, but you can argue that it was the worst thing for Talib Kweli. After spending years cultivating a reputation as the rhymer most likely to unite hip-hop's mainstream and underground, Kweli saw West come out of nowhere to span the warring factions in a brilliant crossover bid. And Talib's own would-be masterpiece is now not only nine months late, but crippled by bootleggers and burdened with the weight of expectations. "Going Hard," the standard call to revolution, and "A Game," a tongue-in-cheek club banger that's not tongue-in-cheek enough, attempt to play both sides of the hip-hop fence and will ultimately please neither.
If that sounds a little harsh, it's because Kweli has proved himself to be one of the 10 best MCs around, and because at times he lives up to that standard here. "I Try" is hip-hop at its best, with a gospel-rooted hook from Mary J. Blige and indelible poetry within: "Life is a beautiful struggle/People search through the rubble for a suitable hustle." Kweli also displays amazing range, taking the genre to unfamiliar locales, both lyrically ("Black Girl Pain") and musically (the exuberant hard rock candy of "We Got the Beat"). Yet unfairly or not, in West's wake, even those victories ring a trifle hollow.