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The real MCs come out from the underground

Talib Kweli plays Saint Andrews

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Fabled East Coast MC and outspoken social critic Talib Kweli appears at Saint Andrews Hall on Saturday, one of the final dates in a recent string of live performances Kweli has dubbed "The Seven Tour." Kweli will be joined by Styles P — audiences may remember for his work with the LOX and Ruff Ryders — as well as Chicago-based rapper K'Valentine.

A friend and I were recently reflecting on what they considered my lame and unimaginative taste in commercial rap and R&B. All the stuff you hear in the charts today is at best devoid of any substance, the argument went, and at its illuminati-fantasist worst, full of subliminal messages intended to instill patterns of blind obedience and consumption in the listener (the masses, and myself). I guess that makes me a total sheeple, because all I seem to hear are inclusive, universal themes about being a completely self-actualized human being, hitting a switch on fake-asses, and blowing mad trees.

Regardless of whether you think the music is truly great, it is interesting to consider the path rap and R&B took to become the predominant mode of musical expression in American culture circa 2017. Almost 20 years ago, when Kweli and partners Mos Def and Hi Tek issued their modern masterpiece Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star, the gulf between commercial and so-called underground rap could not have seemed greater. But today, the latest Rihanna single — to name but one example — seems full of nods to a distinctly East Coast sound and Dilla-esque production values that Kweli and his contemporaries helped register in the mainstream popular consciousness.

The year Black Star was released can be seen as a true watershed moment in music, with at least three other landmark hip-hop albums produced — notably, Jay Z's Vol. 2 ... Hard Knock Life, Lauryn Hill's The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, and Puff Daddy and the Family's No Way Out. As part of the self-proclaimed "best alliance in hip-hop," Kweli's tracks like "Respiration" and "Definition" have come to be regarded as some of the greatest hip hop music ever produced. And it was only this year that the artistic journey that Kweli embarked on with Black Star culminated in the fulfillment of a lifelong dream, when he appeared on "The Killing Season" from the final and unexpected album from his childhood heroes A Tribe Called Quest.

After Black Star, Kweli reunited with producer Hi Tek to form a new group, calling themselves Reflection Eternal. The duo's 2000 album Train of Thought contains more of Kweli's most impressive work, including tracks like "Blast" and collaborations with other East Coast luminaries like Rah Digga and De La Soul. Over the course of his 20-plus year career as an artist, Kweli's place in the culture has continued to grow. In 2004 he appeared on "Get Em High" from Kanye West's album The College Dropout. As a solo artist, he has recruited the likes of Justin Timberlake and Mike Posner to sing the hook on tracks like "The Nature" from his 2007 release The Eardrum, and "Colors of You," which was produced by the late J Dilla, for his 2013 album Gravitas.

But even if the sound he helped create has become less marginal, Kweli seems to insist on staking out his place at the fringes. He has made high-profile appearances in the national media during times of crisis and social unrest, lending his support to both the Occupy and Black Lives Matter movements. He has never shied from being overtly political, stating in a recent interview that "Anyone who's not a straight, white man with a little bit of money is going to be marginalized in Trump's America." But it is how this message is conveyed implicitly through Kweli's music that makes his work so powerful. On "Get By," from his 2002 album Quality, Kweli evokes the most universal struggle of all. It is one that, like the sound of East Coast hip-hop, has become harder to ignore as of late — our collective struggle to simply exist.

Talib Kweli performs at Saint Andrews Hall on Saturday, Feb. 4; doors at 8:30 p.m.; 431 E. Congress St.; saintandrewsdetroit.com; $25.

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