Brooklyn was in the house Thursday night as Milwaukee played host to one of independent hip-hop’s most influential artists, Talib Kweli. With a career spanning 20 years, Kweli has pumped out six solo albums, nearly 20 mixtapes, and endless collaborations, including the release of albums as Black Star with Mos Def (now known as Yasin Bey), Reflections Eternal with DJ Hi Tek and Idle Warships with Res. The man has been around, and he even had the fortune of working with Kanye West in his pre-Yeezus days.
For his first performance at Turner Hall Ballroom, he cranked out his hits and fan favorites for the sparse, but awe-struck crowd. With a setlist that went through most of his career, Kweli bounced around from solo efforts to collaborations and even a couple covers thrown in for good measure. To get the crowd moving early with its chorus of “keep on dancin’,” he performed “The Blast” from Reflection Eternal’s “Train of Thought.” Following up that track was banter with the crowd and plenty of audience participation, especially on the performances of his Jaylib collaboration “Raw Shit.”
There may have been a small crowd of only a few hundred, but they all seemed excited to be there, and Kweli didn’t appear to mind the enthusiasm in the least. The audience that was there was captivated, and he seemed to legitimately enjoy entertaining them.
Other highlights include “Lonely People,” a track relying heavily on a sample of The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” Black Stars’ “Brown Skin Lady,” which samples Gil-Scott Heron’s “We Almost Lost Detroit,” and his performance of Reflection Eternal’s “Move Somethin’.”
But the crowd was definitely hyped the most for his two collaborations with Kanye West he performed, including his collaboration on West’s “Get ‘Em High,” off of his debut album College Dropout. Following just a few songs afterward was “Just To Get By,” off Kweli’s solo effort, Quality. Relying on production efforts of West and his excellent use of sampling Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman,” the crowd sang along to every word and some b-boys even started a little show of their own with some back-and-forth breakdancing that quickly turned heads in the crowd. Kweli closed his set with a three-song encore that culminated with “What’s Real” off his 2013 release, Gravitas.
While a song off what’s far from his most popular record, closing out with “What’s Real” was fitting in a way. As much as “keepin’ it real” may be cliche, for Kweli, keeping real to himself and not conforming to the mainstream trends in hip-hop has allowed him to keep performing on a high level for two decades and counting. The crowd sizes may vary from year-to-year, but Kweli doesn’t seem too concerned with crowd size, so long as he’s performing for his most devout fans. That’s what’s real.