On Jay-Z's alleged kiss-off to the hip-hop world, The Black Album, he actually admits that somebody else is better than he is: "If skills sold, truth be told / I'd probably be, lyrically, Talib Kweli." Long admired by other rappers, Kweli has been just over the fence from mainstream success for his whole career, honing his polemical, me-against-the-world style. (At this point it's tough to say what's the cause and what's the effect, though--has he failed to become another Juelz or Jeezy because he's too proud and political to play the pop-gangsta game, or is that righteous stance just sour grapes?) On the new Right About Now: The Official Sucka Free Mix CD (Koch/Black Smith) he sounds as ferocious as ever, rapping like somebody's strapped dynamite to his chest and he's racing against the lit fuse. Sometimes he inadvertently makes it clear why the old Black Star LP still gets name-checked more often than his solo stuff--he seems to bring his best when he's pitted against another rapper, and the standout tracks are the ones with MF Doom (see Sunday's Critic's Choice) and his old Black Star partner, Mos Def (who headlines this show). "Where You Gonna Run," featuring opener Jean Grae (see below), makes you wish she and Kweli would do a whole album together--they're a natural pair, both breathlessly urgent in pace and both still pissed after all these years. The backing track, like most of Right About Now, sounds a little tinny and cheap, but if someone would give these two more than $22 to spend in the studio, they could be deadly. --Jessica Hopper
The hip-hop-buying public doesn't seem to have much collective headspace to give to intelligent female MCs--Jean Grae still gets constantly compared to Lauryn Hill. But while Hill's career has flatlined, Grae proved with a 2003 mix tape that she could out-rap Jay-Z on his own beat, and her "Going Crazy" was one of the catchiest hip-hop singles of last year. The mainstream's not paying her any mind, though--which is good news for those of us who are, since the more she's ignored the better she gets. Grae's hungry, and she knows she deserves a spot at the table with the big boys, so she's on a mission to outdo herself with every song she records until she's finally too ridiculously great to overlook. If people don't start paying attention to her soon, she's gonna be legendary. --Miles Raymer
Mos Def headlines and Talib Kweli plays third; the two will likely do a few songs together as well. Pharoahe Monch goes on second and Jean Grae opens. Fri 12/9, 5 and 11 PM, House of Blues, 329 N. Dearborn, 312-923-2000 or 312-559-1212, early show A, late show 18+. Both shows are sold out.