Talib Kweli - Prisoner of Conscious

Posted May 8, 2013

Veteran emcee Talib Kweli has finally released his long-delayed fifth studio album, Prisoner of Conscious.

The LP, released through Javotti Media/Caroline, features previously-released singles "Push Thru" and "Upper Echelon," "Come Here," "High Life" and "Rocket Ships." Joining Kweli on the set are notable guest features Busta Rhymes, Curren$y, Kendrick Lamar, Marsha Ambrosius, Melanie Fiona, Miguel and Nelly, while production credits go to Harry Fraud, Oh No, S1 and more.

Prisoner of Conscious Album Review

I don’t know if I’d be writing this if it wasn’t for Talib Kweli. I liked hip-hop before I heard Black Star, but that album helped me fall in love with hip-hop, and before I knew it, I had memorized every word of Black Star…and Train of Thought…and Kweli’s joints on Soundbombing. I know I’m not alone. Thousands of people have that connection with Kweli, which I imagine can sometimes feel like as much of a blessing as a curse. We’d all be happy if he continued to make Train of Thought into eternity, not only because the music was that good, but because it reminded us of those moments when we first fell in love. Of course, that would also mean that Kweli would be held in an artistic prison built by our collective nostalgia, but hey, why would we let a little something like a man’s need to evolve artistically get in the way of our need to relive the late ‘90s?

Considering all that, do I really have to explain why he chose to name his new album Prisoner of Conscious? Especially considering his recent work with Idle Warship, Kweli seems determined to simply make the music he wants to, pressures on him to be a “conscious” rapper, whatever that means, be damned. After all, if now, when?

It’s an artistisic mission statement from Kweli that will likely give some of my fellow nostalgists hip-hop heart palpitations when pressing play on Prisoner for the first time; I’m here to tell those people relax, breathe, it’s all going to be fine. In fact, Kweli is sure to lay all your fears to rest from the get-go as he absolutely destroys Human Mic. Kweli’s rhyme style has always been “as many dope words per bar as possible” and in trademark form he fills every second of Human Mic with a barrage of lyrical firepower, a feat he repeats on Rocket Ships, along with Busta Rhymes, and the narrative-driven Hamster Wheel. I mean, the man even rhymes over Erik B.’s classic Paid in Full sample on Turnt Up. Come on, even the most pessimistic backpacker has to applaud that one.

So there, now that we’ve labeled Prisoner of Conscious hip-hop head friendly, let’s spend the rest of the review rendering any easy labels meaningless; this is certainly his most sonically diverse album ever. From Brown Skin Lady to Hot Thing, Kweli has never been a stranger to romantic rap, and Prisoner certainly isn’t afraid to push into R&B territory. Come Here, featuring the seemingly unstoppable Miguel, is as smooth as anything he’s ever done, and It Only Gets Better, Ready, Set, Go and bonus track Outstanding manage to seamlessly blend some gorgeous R&B hooks into a more hip-hop foundation. But those are still relatively predictable offerings compared to a track like Favela Love, which brings on Brazilian singer Seu Jorge for a bi-lingual love song that isn't afraid to take some real risks. Seriously, name the last time you heard an artist let someone sing in Portuguese?

Equally risky but on the opposite end of the smoothness spectrum is the more trap music influenced Upper Echelon, which is the album’s only real stumble. Prisoner of Conscious largely works because while Kweli is obviously determined to challenge ideas around the kind of music he “should” be making, he never lets his desire to prove his point overshadow his desire to make good music; except for Echelon. Lord knows I’m not going to doubt that Kweli is capable of making a true trap banger, but Echelon isn't that banger. Both the beat and Kweli’s rhymes sound disappointingly flat, but in some ways the fact that Echelon falls short is a good thing – it means he was genuinely trying to make a leap.

In some ways Kweli must feel like he can’t win, and he’s right. No matter how dope his new music is, I’ll always love Train of Thought more, simply because that’s the music that’s inextricably intertwined with my memories. There’s nothing he can do about it, except continue to evolve and challenge not only himself but hip-hop, and with Prisoner of Conscious he’s done just that. So maybe the least we can do for Kweli in return for all those memories is join him in the present instead of becoming stuck in the past. I’m trying…

DJBooth Rating - 4 Spins

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Posted May 8, 2013
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