Rawkus - 2003 - 65 mins

Talib Kweli is one of Rawkus Records' best-known MCs. Rawkus is the New York label that was instrumental in kicking off underground hip-hop as a commercial proposition. The label has seen a number of releases from Kweli, including two excellent full-length collaborations, one with fellow MC, Mos Def and another with long-time producer Hi-Tek.

'Quality' is Kweli's solo release with Hi-Tek replaced at the desk with a series of generally little-known producers (The Soulquarians and DJ Quik being the two exceptions).

'Get By' is as stirring as conscious rap gets, soberly relating an anti-drug message over an uplifting sample symphony driven by a staccato piano riff. As the track nears its end, it explodes into a heady stew of wordless vocals that might have been snatched from generations of great soul singers. Spine-tingling stuff.

'Waiting For The DJ' is anointed with sweet screaming from Dre protégé Bilal, and nods to the king of G-Funk with its backing track's funky simplicity.

Although there are plenty of moments to cherish, Talib Kweli has chosen a mildly unfortunate title for his debut solo album. 'Quality' might contain stabs of inspiration, particularly the magnificent 'Get By', but it lacks the consistency to be truly an album of quality.

Talib Kweli may be having a minor identity crisis. Long regarded a scion of the underground, he cemented this image with his choice of collaborators, Mos Def and Hi-Tek being fellow dons of conscious integrity.

'Quality' is a change in direction that plays both as a half-hearted stab at commercialism, and as a continuation of Kweli's career path to date. On the way it falls into the same trap as Q-Tip, a rapper who has taken this journey before. 'Quality' might be way above average, but for an MC who has thrilled in the past that just isn't good enough.

Luke McManus

Tracklisting: Keynote Speaker - Rush - Get By - Shock Body - Gun Music - Waitin' for the DJ - Joy - Talk to You (Lil' Darlin') - Guerrilla Monsoon Rap - Put It in the Air - The Proud - Where Do We Go - Stand to the Side - Good to You - Won't You Stay