Did I catch him at a bad time? I wonder.
On a recent afternoon, I call Talib Kweli's cell phone to discuss his excellent new album, Eardrum, which hits stores Tuesday. After the Brooklyn, N.Y., rapper's dry greeting, I wait for two whole minutes while he talks and laughs with other people in the room.
"Hello," he says when he finally returns to the phone.
"Is this a good time for you?" I ask, trying not to sound too edgy.
"Yeah, you cool."
"All right. So this new record of yours, Eardrum, I ..."
And I'm waiting another two minutes. It's not as if my call came out of the blue. Kweli was expecting the interview. I'm doodling on my notepad and thinking about hanging up when he returns.
"You're ready to talk?" I ask.
"Go ahead, man."
Kweli sounds a bit tense, nothing like the relaxed MC on Eardrum. He's one of hip-hop's most respected rhyme slingers, an earnest rapper whose attempts at commercial success (namely 2002's Quality and 2004's The Beautiful Struggle, both released by Geffen Records) were bloodless and clumsy. He went the independent route on his last release, 2005's solid but overlooked Right About Now.
About the time he put out that CD, Kweli signed with Warner Bros. Records. As part of the deal, the mighty company will distribute, market and promote music issued through Blacksmith Music Corp., the artist's boutique label. Eardrum is the first release from the new partnership. And it is perhaps Kweli's strongest album since 2000's Reflection Eternal, the underground hip-hop classic recorded with DJ Hi Tek.
"I was ready to do this work," Kweli says of the new CD. "Geffen didn't have any faith in me. And that may have affected my music there. How so? I don't know. I haven't thought much about it."
On Eardrum, Kweli doesn't try to shoehorn his style into busy productions, and his lines aren't so overstuffed this time. Working with impressive beatmakers such as Madlib, Just Blaze and will. i.am, the artist delivers his incisive, mostly socially conscious rhymes with an assuredness absent on his Geffen albums.
It helps that the music -- crushed velvet soul samples chopped up and brilliantly looped over deep, rolling beats -- better supports him this time. The sound breathes. Kweli's collaborators, including UGK on the standout "Country Cousins" and Norah Jones on the sublime "Soon a New Day," help make Eardrum a soulful, fluid listen.
"I work with artists who feed off each other," Kweli says. "These are artists who listen to each other's work. Norah Jones, she was very gracious. We just e-mailed her, asked if she would do this. She did it."
Given all the drivel being passed off as true hip-hop these days, Eardrum is a refreshing offering. But unlike so many artists and music critics (including yours truly), Kweli doesn't think today's hip-hop is on artistic life support.
"Hip-hop's in a great place," he says. "But so many people only pay attention to what's in the top 10, and there's much more than that. Hip-hop artists have much more to say than what you hear all day on the radio."
That may be true. I ask Kweli whether he thinks Eardrum will be that commercial breakthrough that has long eluded him. "I never feel like that with my records, you know. I make music I want to hear," he says. "When it's out there, I have no control over how it's perceived."
I hear street noises in the background. Kweli may have stepped outside.
"On this album, I want people to focus on the musicality as opposed to just focusing on the lyrics," he says. "The record is more mature. I hope people get that."