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Talib Kweli’s Idle Warship Comes to Pagoda

In Music
Idle Warship performs at the Pagoda on Saturday.

Idle Warship performs at the Pagoda on Saturday.

Doing the unexpected is nothing new for Talib Kweli and Res, the duo behind alternative R&B/hip hop group Idle Warship, which comes to Pagoda Lounge in San Jose on Saturday. Kweli has made a name for himself as a conscious-underground rapper with a sound all of his own. Back in the mid-90s he formed the group Black Star with Mos Def. They became pioneers in the budding indie-rap movement of the late 90s.

Res’s approach to soul music has been equally innovative. Her 2001 debut album, How I Do was an underrated gem. She seamlessly blended R&B with rock and indie-pop in a way few artists had yet to attempt.

When Kweli and Res started working together, not only did they want to continue this tradition of musical experimentation, they also wanted to make sure their collaboration didn’t sound like their solo work. According to Res, Idle Warship’s debut full length Habits of the Heart is the most accessible album either of them has yet made. But this may have to do more with the changing times than with the material on the album.

“It’s very reflective of what’s going on today. Everybody listens to everything. I’ve been told that How I Do was before its time. The music I make with Idle Warship is right on time,” Res says.

It’s true that there is more acceptance of genre crossover than even before, and there is a lot of it in Habits of the Heart—so much that it’s a difficult album to classify. There are elements of hip hop, soul, rock, electronic music, retro-pop, all with a mildly avant-garde twist. The album sounds unlike anything else out there.

Since Kweli has a big hip-hop fanbase, he has been warning his fans in interviews that Idle Warship is not a hip-hop group.

“Kweli is rapping, but he’s also singing. He’s directing the band. With a hip-hop show, usually they don’t have a band, or the band plays exactly what’s on the record,” Res says. “For me, that’s a little bit boring. We put a different groove on it if we feel it’ll work better live.”

The live band includes a bass, guitar, drums and keyboard lineup. No DJ. The band grooves, jams, links songs together and even goes into the occasional cover song (like “Sweet Dreams” by the Eurythmics), basically giving people the full-on rock and roll live show.

Something else that might surprise Kweli fans is that Idle Warship has a lot more of Res singing lead than Kweli, a decision he made to showcase her talent. So in a sense, Idle Warship is a less of a departure musically for Res than Kweli. Not just because there’s more singing on it, but because she’s already recorded unusual cross-genre soul songs on her own. (Her version of Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” is a gorgeous, heartfelt rendition that falls somewhere between folk-rock and traditional soul). Still there are major differences between her solo work and Idle Warship.

“99 percent of the songs I did for Idle Warship, I would not have put on a solo record. My stuff is usually more a woman’s reflective take on things versus Idle Warship is like the aggressive woman’s take on things,” Res says.

The aggressive part of Idle Warship is the hard-hitting, hip hop beats and the strong, in-your-face lead vocals, neither of which are found in Res’s solo music. Idle Warship also has synthesizers and retro 80s dance beats, plus the lyrics are more straight forward. The album unintentionally emerged with a theme, and once they realized it, they fine-tuned it.

“It’s an album about being young and in love and doing the right and bad things from being in love, the ups and dowsn of the way you act when you’re in love,” Res says.

Kweli and Res’s collaboration started out casually; first a few tracks, then a mixtape.
“In the beginning we weren’t spending a lot of time together. We recorded back and forth over the computer,” Res says.

It evolved into something more as Kweli invited Res to join him to join him on more tour dates. The two got to work together more in person. The chemistry was right, plus they were already fans of each other’s work.

“Kweli felt like I should have more notoriety. There’s been different times in my career that I wanted to not do music. I think he definitely looks at Idle Warship as his way of saying, ‘yes Res, you need to be around. I’m going to force you to stay around,’” Res says.

Idle Warship plays the Pagoda Lounge in San Jose on Saturday, Feb. 11, 10pm; $18. The group will stop at Streetlight Records for an in-store signing before the show at 4:30pm.

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