Times have seemingly changed in the rap game. While before credibility meant everything, most fans are giving their favorite artists passes when it comes to truly living the lives that they portray on wax. Just a few years ago Rick Ross wouldn’t be allowed near a mic after the expose he experienced, yet he’s still one of the hottest MC’s in the game.
Yet the underground crowd doesn’t seem as willing to let go of their need for authenticity. ‘Conscious’ emcees constantly have to keep the struggle at the forefront of their rhymes. Anything but is seen as sacrilegious. This is the predicament that still plagues backpacker hero Talib Kweli as he releases his 5th solo studio album, Prisoner of Conscious. The BK Emcee has long lamented the ‘conscious’ label because it stunts not only his creative ability but also his ability to reach other audiences. It’s not that he wants to sell out and ride around in Maybachs; but he does want to get on a track with Gucci Mane and spread his message to the trap. True revolutionaries know you have to meet people where they’re at, which Kweli is more than willing to do, even if his fans are a little weary.
Will Prisoner of Conscious move the masses or fall on deaf ears? Read on and find out.
Produced by Oh No
We start the album off with Talib addressing a crowd. It could be a concert but I doubt it because he uses the mic check technique. Mic check is a technique used by activists when addressing large crowds without a PA system. The speaker speaks slowly enough for the crowd to recite the words loudly so that everyone in attendance can hear. Kweli lets the crowd know that they all share the same message and if they want it to be spread it’s everyone’s responsibility to make sure the message gets out. This really fits well into Talib’s style and is short enough that it doesn’t get boring or preachy.
2. Human Mic
Produced by Oh No
Back on his opener to his 2007 album Eardrum, Kweli admitted to “trying to fit everything in the same line.” On recent projects Kweli has tried to spread his words around to make his flow more palatable for the casual listeners. This is NOT the case on the first proper song on the album. Talib’s flow is dense, and if you’re not use to digesting lyrics quickly you will be completely lost after the first five seconds of the song. But if you truly take the time and patience to decipher what Kweli is saying you will be rewarded for it, as he truly spits for the commoner, whether they be conscious, gangster, hustler, righteous or anything inbetween. The beat by Oh No is the same from the intro and serves as a beautiful backdrop for Kweli’s uplifting message.
3. Turnt Up
Produced by Trend
Like I stated before, Kweli is not afraid to try new things and jump into the mainstream, this time by adopting #teamyoungnigga’s favorite saying for the title of this song. Admittedly, as someone who has ‘turnt up’ a time or two, nothing about this song reminds me or makes me want to turn up. And the hook is pretty bad too. That aside, the instrumental on this track is one of the most hypnotic I’ve ever heard. There’s an airy, Middle Eastern vibe that will have you in a trance. You may not want to turn up, but you will definitely vibe out to this one. Lyrically Talib is everywhere on this one, from laying his mack down, (“the crib is outrageous, but really it’s no joke, the girl of your dreams is coming over to smoke.”) to looking for the next person to lead the movement (“I’m not asking for followers, I’m looking for new leaders.”). The song is definitely ADHD, and while it shouldn’t work, it somehow does, and surprisingly well.
4. Come Here
Featuring Miguel; Produced by Sean C & LV
Talib brings Miguel on the track to help him serenade the ladies. Talib is no stranger to talking to the ladies, as he often calls himself the modern day Cyrano. Cyrano being the Victorian Era French character known for his eloquent speech but not so desirable features, who helped his better looking but conversation inept friend woo a woman he eventually fell for. Kweli’s style definitely transitions well to speaking to the fairer sex, and while young girls probably won’t get the Salvadore Dahli references, the grown women with a book or two under their belt will appreciate Kweli’s swag. Sean C & LV infuse Caribbean percussion with a soft melody that screams grown man. More mature players or youngin’s messing with cougars should put this on their late night playlists.
5. High Life
Featuring Rubix & Bajah; Produced by Oh No
After some outside of the box songs Talib goes back to his bread and butter. Oh No puts some boom bap with big band horns which definitely carries over the 70’s sound from the previous track. This one is definitely for the Hip-Hop heads who appreciate complexity and dexterity from their artists. Everyone brings it but Kweli manages to shine the brightest:
The great debater, the savior, the caped crusader,
The Alpha, the Omega, your favorite communicator
News junky I’m the one in the midst of job creators
The part of the conversation, the start of indoctrination.
The flow is a thing of beauty, I’m bringing it as Menuti,
They drinking it like a smoothie, they spinning it like a soothie.
Rappers at the sect I’m collecting em like a sou-ve
Near they’re acting up and directing ‘em like a movie.
Script (Skip) the Drama, this an acionl adventure,
They so freaking soft should be against the law.
Aiyo, do I really need to mention?
6. Ready, Set, Go
Featuring Melanie Fiona; Produced by Saadiq Bolden
We get more of the old school New York sound complete with some deejay scratching, but unlike the previous song, this track just falls flat. The subject matter and lyrics are on point as always, as Kweli spits about being ready at any given moment and taking advantage of opportunity, but this song just didn’t hold my interest. Melanie Fiona is on hook duty here but even her impressive vocals fail to inspire. I won’t call this song a skip because it isn’t bad, but it is boring. Definitely filler.
7. Hold It Now
Produced by Oh No
Oh No is back behind the boards and gives Kweli a grittier backdrop to work with. The middle portion is definitely sounding like vintage Kweli, and unlike the last track, this time that’s a good thing. The track is barely over two minutes, but it does enough to get the album back on the right track.
8. Push Thru
Featuring Curren$y, Kendrick Lamar, & Glen Reynolds; Produced by S1
No disrespect to the artists present, but when I heard the beat come on my first thought was, “Man, I bet Phonte would murder this beat.” Don’t worry though, as the rappers present definitely do the track justice. S1 provides a serene sounding beat that finds each rapper detailing how to navigate life’s obstacles. As maybe expected, the newly cemented K-Dot has the best verse:
My vision’s bothered by vigilantes that harbor on street corners
Try your hardest to harvest bundles of weed on ya
The starving’ll speed on ya, stampede on ya
Impede on your pockets then pee on ya
Dreams of us living lavish in fabrics of fine linens
Spending, established, with women dining and laughing
But this environment got us violent, ready to crash in
To society, take this driver seat, hope you fastened
Your seatbelts twice, when I rolled them dice, I crapped
So many times I can build casinos from scratch
Too many daps you might receive from the things you achieve, relax
That’s what my mental say, but my physical’s been detached, I’m on some other shit
Like fuck the government, I’m higher rankings, where’s the mothership?
I made a covenant that I was changing but my luck is bent
Quite disgusting when reality tainted, where the fuck you been?
Left him face down like he was planking
In a cold world where old girl and her homeboy got a motive
You can bench curl your tribulations, that sensation’s insulting
Got a wifey or a mistress, nigga which one you indulging?
Regardless of who you pick know life’s a bitch when you ain’t focused nigga
Kweli isn’t much far behind and shows how to make a verse relevant by tying in current events:
When I’m on fire, she always try to douse me
Only reason that you make it rain is ‘cause your diamonds cloudy
I see you from a mile away when it get overcast
Old people feel it in they bones, invade your home like a broken glass
And let myself in, fighting for freedom like the people in Tunisia
Spread through Sudan and Egypt, this the music for the movement
The score to your achievements, never join ‘em so you gotta beat ‘em
It’s carpe diem hey (hey) yeah
Newcomer Glen Reynolds provides a good hook to round out a stellar performance by all three rappers.
9. Hamster Wheel
Produced by Oh No & G Koop
This time Oh No is joined by G Koop to craft a dramatic beat as Kweli goes into storyteller mode. Here Talib talks about a young women living to live instead of making sound decisions. While the lyrics are strong the hook is repetitive as Kweli drives home the hamster wheel metaphor way too bluntly, making it feel drastically uncreative and redundant. This could’ve been a stronger cut, but with the poor hook it misses the mark.
10. Delicate Flowers
Produced by S1 & Caleb McCampbell
Here we get Kweli talking about the differences in the way men and women view things, which can lead to miscommunication, misunderstanding and arguments. Anyone who’s ever been in a real relationship will appreciate this track as it accurately details how hard it can be for couples to interact with each other. It’s also great to hear Kweli resolve to stay with his woman even though it gets rough sometimes and she gets on his nerves. This song is like getting woman advice from an older brother or father. Not the most exciting song but it’s definitely real.
11. Rocket Ships
Featuring Busta Rhymes; Produced by RZA
I don’t know if this is the first time that RZA and Kweli have hooked up before, but if it is I damn sure hope it isn’t the last time. RZA gives Kweli some ‘John Woo gun music’ as Talib calls it, and he goes straight off on this track. There are WAY too many quotables on this one. The best part is Talib slows down his rapid fire flow so that you can feel the bite of each one of them. “I make algorithms that got Malcolm in ‘em” and “sacrifice myself for the music so they can suffer through me” are just a few of the gems Kweli has on display here. Kweli is so dope here that you almost want Busta off the song so Talib can have more time. Don’t get it twisted though, Busta brings it too and has a hilarious back and forth about bacon with his girl in the middle of his verse. This is the best song on the album and is one of those songs that make you want to put the BK Emcee in your Top 5 lists. BANGER!
12. Before He Walked
Featuring Nelly & Abby Dobson; Produced by Harry Fraud
If you’ve read my reviews before you know I’m big on sequencing and what it can do to an albums pace and momentum. After such an epic song we get this head scratcher. I’m sorry, but it’s 2013; I really don’t expect nor want Nelly to be on a song. His verse feels like it takes forever, and with a boring hook and a slow, plodding beat this song was doomed before Kweli could spit a word, which is a shame because he’s words are on point as always. Too bad you’ll probably be too bored to wait for his turn on the mic. This song is terrible and if you’re putting this album on your iPod or mp3 player just leave this one out all together, you’ll thank me for it I promise.
13. Upper Echelon
Produced by Harry Fraud
Talib is able to recover form that abomination of a song and definitely comes correct on this one. When not inspiring a revolution or seducing a women’s mind before her body, Talib spits about his other favorite subject, how great is he. And when he gets a good beat he truly sounds great doing it. Harry Fraud gives him a dark and spacey beat to spit over, and while the hook may be a bit too clunky to sing along to, the song is definitely dope.
14. Favela Love
Featuring Seu Jorge & Terrance Martin
Kweli goes back to the ladies on this one, particularly the international honeys. Favela is a Portuguese term for ghettoes, which goes to show Talib’s commitment to highlighting the struggle and the downtrodden, even when he’s trying to spit game. With so much misogyny in rap and the recent discussion of the subliminal endorsement of rape in popular culture, it really resonates when Talib spits, “I don’t wanna bang it or beat it, hit it or stab it/ listening to your voodoo I call it the Black Magic.” While the good intentions are a plus, this song will probably go over casual rap fans heads. For starters, the track is almost seven minutes long. The other problem is that half of it is in Portuguese. Definitely not a bad song, but you’ll have to step out of your comfort zone to really appreciate this one.
15. It Only Gets Better
Featuring Marsha Ambrosius; Produced by J. Cole
If you thought to yourself, “This song sounds like something J. Cole would rap on.” it’s because Cole produced the track. He does a nice job on the boards as Kweli uses the last track to do what he did at the start of the album: uplift the people. Kweli talks about the importance of grinding through adversity, not being complacent and making sure to help others. He ends the song shouting out those trying to make a difference like Assata Shakur, who was recently re-added to the FBI’s Most Wanted list with an increased bounty on her head. Marsha Ambrosius sounds lush on the hook and the album closes out really strong.
There’s a reason that Jay-Z famously stated that he wished he wasn’t so concerned with sales so that he could rap like Talib Kweli. He’s an emcee who is truly about the people. He’s an intelligent rapper that is more than just ‘Blame the White Man’ and Illuminati theories. Maybe that’s why his core fan base hold on to him so dearly and are afraid to let him try new things. He is one of the last and best representations of what Underground Hip-Hop is and should be.
Unfortunately, that is both Kweli’s gift and curse. When he released Eardrum in 2007 it was his most adventurous album to date and maybe his most commercial as well. Since then he has tried to appease his core base. And although there are some mainstream features like Kendrick Lamar, Miguel and Curren$y, this album probably won’t make mainstream waves. Part of the problem is that Kweli can’t get out of his own way at times. You can’t make a party record and talk about foreign conflicts and expect to be number 1 on 106. There are also a few downright missteps that may have looked like potential crossovers but just feel flat.
Nevertheless, one thing you have to say about Kweli is that he is consistent. Prisoner of Conscious is a really good album on the brink of greatness that gets better if you show it a little patience. Talib never lets his fans down, and he doesn’t start here. Hopefully fans will reward his dedication to them by freeing him from the prison of their expectations.