But it wasn't until last year's "Ear Drum," his third bona fide solo album, that Kweli finally scored a Top 10 hit of his own. "Yeah, they say I'm back, but I ain't go nowhere though!" the 32-year-old artist rapped. "Been here the whole time/Where you been? You back!/Matter fact, apologize!"
The roster of guests on "Ear Drum" is ample testament to the wide range of artists who've acknowledged Kweli's talents, with producers including Chicagoan Kanye West and the Black Eyed Peas' Will.i.am, musical guests Norah Jones and Justin Timberlake and much-buzzed underground heroes Madlib and Jean Grae. But Kweli says he didn't set out to expand his audience by recruiting stars or crafting a more accessible sound.
"Going into the studio is always about the actual songs for me. I just wrote these songs over the period of about a year, but I also had a lot of other things going on. We put out a bunch of mix tapes, so I was constantly recording stuff. The album wound up being the songs I was most excited about."
As in the past, "Ear Drum" has its share of politics and positivity. "More rap songs that stress a purpose/Less misogyny and less curses," Kweli promises on "More or Less," while on "Say Something," he also vows to "speak to the people like Barack Obama." ("From the moment he stepped on the national platform, he's had a better shot than any black man before him at the nomination, but he's also running a very impressive campaign," Kweli says of the Illinois senator and presidential candidate.)
Yet this son of college professors and one-time owner of an Afrocentric bookstore is hardly a humorless preacher: Witness Kweli's lighthearted take on the Dirty South sound in "Country Cousins," or his back and forth with West on "In the Mood," which praise the merits of "real women" like Tooty from "The Facts of Life" over an unforgettably catchy melody from jazz vibraphone player Roy Ayers.
In fact, Kweli says that one of his goals with "Ear Drum" was to challenge people's preconceptions about his subject matter as well as his sound, especially when it comes to the way he uses music.
"You know, musically, I've worked with some of the best in the business, from Madlib to Kanye, and from Pharell [Williams] to Just Blaze. But the lyrics end up being the focus of what I do. A lot of people talk about the lyrics and they either forget or never notice the musical choices. But I think that the reason why they hear the lyrics are because of the musical choices. There are a lot of dope rappers and a lot of people who have intelligent lyrics, but not all of them sound good. So I wanted to concentrate on crafting an album that shows people exactly what I do with music -- to make something really musical, but which still had the content."
As the father of two, the former Talib Greene has made it clear that he hopes to have a long career as a rapper. "I want to have a career and feed my family forever," he's said. But he isn't overly concerned about the chaos the digital revolution is wreaking upon the recording industry.
"My last two studio albums have been available on the Internet months before they came out, and in the case of 'Ear Drum,' it probably helped. Music at this point is free, like grabbing a firefly out of the sky. So where is my money to be made? Is it from branding myself, marketing and promoting myself? Like Cee-Lo [Green] said a few records ago, it's about selling soul. Selling music has been secondary for a long time."
To this end, Kweli says he values live performance now more than ever, and after his current tour in support of "Ear Drum," he's planning to follow in Cee-Lo's footsteps with a genre-blurring band in the mode of Gnarls Barkley, sharing vocal duties with R&B singer Res. This group, Idle Warship, will be "more upbeat club music." But Kweli doesn't plan on abandoning more socially conscious music any time soon.
"It's easy for a progressive audience to think that at the root of their problems with music is some sort of conspiracy: The industry doesn't want me to sell 'cause I'm conscious," he told the Toronto Star. "But I don't think it's as simple as that. You have to create the sort of situation you want for yourself."