On seminal early albums with Black Star and Reflection Eternal, Talib Kweli rapped as if each line might be his last, and he'd stopped to stockpile words in case he never had another chance to use them. The results were exhilarating and exhausting. Kweli's recorded output has grown much spottier since, but last year's nifty collaboration with Madlib, the Liberation EP, found Kweli in a nice, relaxed groove that continues with his stellar new Eardrum.


Kweli has learned to use his voice as a warm, relatively diverse instrument, and not just a conduit for rapid-fire ideas and pop-culture allusions. Just Blaze's "Hostile Gospel Pt. 1" delivers the same goosebump-inducing heavenly rush as "Get By," and though Kweli still regularly speeds through tracks like a racehorse fearing a trip to the glue factory, the overall vibe takes its cues from the laid-back, chilled-out production of ringers like Madlib, Kanye West, Hi-Tek, and Pete Rock, as well as the ubiquitous Will.I.Am, who in spite of his death-penalty-worthy crimes against music, cooked up some mean beats for "Hot Thing" and "Say Something." Sexual and spiritual, conscious and just plain fun, Eardrum is a master class in lyricism from a man supremely comfortable in his own skin. While other rappers pump out music for ringtones, Kweli makes art for the ages.