Idle Warship Drops ‘Habits of the Heart,’ Talib Kweli Sings
Talib Kweli is a veteran rapper. His music has been labeled everything from conscious rap to underground hip-hop, but on his latest release, he is going where he’s never gone before. Idle Warship — the group he’s formed with Philadelphia-bred soul artist Res — is Kweli taking a very big step outside of the box.
The Idle Warship partnership goes back almost a decade, when Res first collaborated with Kweli and Hi-Tek on the Reflection Eternal track ‘Too Late.’ In the decade that followed, Res would be featured on a handful of Kweli tracks. “It was infinite destiny,” the singer says of the road to their proper debut, ‘Habits of the Heart,’ out today (Nov. 1.) Kweli hit her up randomly one day in 2008, with the idea that they should lay down their previous collaborations, and a couple new ones, for a mixtape. The end result was 2009’s 14-track tape, ‘Party Robot.’ “One song we did together — ‘Steady’ — was so different and greater than all the previous songs we’ve done that we decided, ‘Let’s keep going.'” The primary difference? Res rapped on the album and Talib would sing — yes, sing. While making ‘Habits of the Heart,’ that model didn’t always work and Talib does end up spitting verses on ‘Enemy,’ ‘Driving Me Insane’ and others.
The BoomBox chatted with both Res and Kweli, the latter admitting he hasn’t read or been able to find a description that captures Idle Warship’s genre-bending ideology. Electro-hop, yes. Disco-beat-influenced rock-rap? Some of that too. Read on as the duo of Idle Warship explain how ‘Habits of the Heart’ came to be, why Talib chose to showcase his singing voice and Res’ thoughts on the English language.
Would you call this an underground hip-hop album?
Res: No. To me, underground hip-hop right now is more like Odd Future and stuff like that. I think this is a record that twists and bends genres and pulls from a lot of things. It’s our own thing, which is what we like to do. Music is ever-changing.
Talib: I wouldn’t call this a hip-hop album. It’s very far from a hip-hop album. That doesn’t mean there’s no hip-hop influences on it — I’m in the group. It’s certainly influenced by hip-hop, but it’s influenced by hip-hop in the same way any artist that makes music today is influenced by hip-hop.
How would you classify this album? What kind of genre-bending is going on here?
Talib: With the type of influences that are on this album, there is no classification on it. That’s something I’ve dealt with in my career for a long time, because I’ve never classified myself as an artist, even though people have said you’re an underground rapper, you’re a political rapper. These are not things that I’ve said. These are things that people who have heard my music have decided, and I take those things as compliments, but Idle Warship uniquely gives us an opportunity to truly say there is no box for this, it’s Idle Warship music. And the other artists that I look up to that do that are Bjork, Fitz and the Tantrums, Gnarls Barkley and there’s the Gorillaz.
Res: It wasn’t thought out. We weren’t like, “We’re going to do a dance record.” We just stuck to the beats that motivated us.
Talib: My focus has always been on lyrical content. To be able to find better ways to marry lyrical content with what people are dancing to is great for me.
Why did you want to honker down and actually make a group out of your collaborations?
Talib: It felt right for the simple fact that Res and I have collaborated on so many different songs and projects, so part of the appeal of Idle is that we are that comfortable in the studio with each other. When I collaborated with Mos Def — that really is Talib Kweli and Mos Def. When I collaborate with Hi-Tek that really is Talib Kweli and Hi-Tek and that’s really the sound that you would come to expect from these artists. When Jay-Z and Kanye made ‘Watch the Throne,’ it’s not a whole different sound, and Jay-Z would have picked any of those beats for his album, and so would ‘Ye, and the subject matter wouldn’t have been that different. That’s what’s interesting with Idle, beyond it being a group with a female, it’s the first time I’ve done a group where you don’t know what its going to sound like, or you don’t know what to expect.
Res: You get so caught up in what you are suppose to do, what your brand is, and what art is and what people want to hear you do and what you want to give to your fans and what they expect — and basically all that s— was out the window. It was like, “Let’s just do what we want to do right now.”
Talib, you straight-up sing on ‘Rat Race.’ Why did you feel like belting it out all of a sudden?
Talib: I sang and I wrote on that song. I wish I could sing better. The only reason you haven’t heard me sing more is because I can’t sing that well. Man, I would totally be a crooner if I really had a singing voice. It’s something you have to work on and develop. I feel like if I put the time and energy into learning how to sing and learning my voice, I could accomplish that. I have not put my time and energy into that. When you hear me singing, it’s really a product of I just felt good at that moment.
Are you afraid of your fans’ reaction to you singing or are you excited for it?
Talib: Yeah, afraid is the wrong word. I know that there are going to be fans of mine that go beyond not liking it. There are fans of mine that are going to feel betrayed when they hear this album, like I smacked them off. There are fans that are going to really take it real personal like I came over to their house and was like, “F— you,” and that’s very exciting and something I’m actually looking forward to because I have enough faith in my creative ability and enough confidence in what I do, and enough to stand on, as far as what I’ve already put out there.
It’s like, “Look man, if you don’t like what I’m doing with Idle Warship, you don’t have to. You can listen to ‘Gutter Rainbows,’ which is a great example of a hip-hop, boombap, beats and rhymes album that I dropped last year, independent of all these record labels. Or, buy ‘Prisoner of Consciousness’ when it comes out next year, which will be my 10th hip-hop album. I got 10 other albums for you because you don’t like what I’m doing here.”
There are a lot of features on this album. How did you pick those?
Talib: Certain songs ask for people, but we also work with people who are around and down for the cause. Jay Knocka is someone whose friends with the group and is at every show and that verse you hear from her [on the album’s track ‘System Addict’] is her freestyling to that beat. We were just having fun in the studio — and she’s not even known to be a rapper; she’s a fashion person, she’s a stylist. It was the flow that she had that was dope. Michelle Williams is somebody I became friends with through Twitter. She’s been such a gracious person and she came to New York and we did a bunch of music together. She heard the song and really fell in love with it and asked to be on it. John Forte is my good friend since the time I was 14 years old.
The title of the album is ‘Habits of the Heart.’ Did you initially have this concept for the album or did it naturally evolve after writing for it?
Talib: We picked the title last. We just wrote songs. Once we picked the songs they started telling a story. The songs tell the story from a female perspective, from the perspective of a young woman, who is caught up in fame and fortune. When I think of tracks like ‘Beautifully Bad,’ ‘Enemy’ and ‘Katya,’ they’re almost about the same person. When I thought of the title ‘Habits of the Heart,’ it flowed off the tongue so well that I had to actually Google it to find out where else it had existed. It was like Bonnie Rait or some country song had to have picked up on it. When I Googled it, I couldn’t find the words put together any artistic way, which I was surprised by because it sounded so natural.
Res: And, ‘Idle Warship’ is a play on words. The English language is funny like that, where you can use one word and have two spellings and double meanings, or triple meanings. Right now, the trend of everyone having a television show for just being a pretty girl, or just for no reason at all — we idolize those people on TV and we are doing all these things that are like oxymorons. She has a show but she hasn’t done more than what the average person has done, or this person has a whole cult following but all they are on TV for is just cooking or something. It’s really strange how the world is right now. It’s an oxymoron with those words “idol worship.” You have to choose “warship” as able to do or destroy all these things but it’s sitting “idle,” not working to its full potential. It’s not being able to be fully productive but having all this attention.
Do you find the inner workings of a women’s heart a difficult thing to understand?
Talib: Yeah, and I have a quote that I didn’t even realize was famous when I said it in an interview offhandedly. Someone asked me if hip-hop was complex, and I’m like, “Well, hip-hop is nowhere near as complex as a woman is.”