Talib Kweli will never make better albums than Black Star and Train of Thought. Or more accurately, he may make better albums, he may already have, but I’ll never think so. Music doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it’s not some measurable, objective science. Instead, music is intimately intertwined with our lives. To hear the song that played during your first kiss, or better yet your first screw, is to in some way relive that moment. It’s an essentially personal experience, and personally, Kweli is one of the reasons I devoted my life to hip-hop. It …
DJBooth Album Review
And he knows it. It’s been more than a decade since he first created a classic alongside Mos Def, but fans will never stop demanding that Kweli take us back to that time, as impossible as it may be. His early success is both what lifts him up, and hold him back. So it should be no surprise that his new album, Gutter Rainbows, is not “traditional” Talib. Not even his reunion with Hi-Tek was traditional Kweli. While his always multisyllabic flow is still present, there are some significant departures from what has widely become seen as the Talib Kweli template. Whether Gutter Rainbows proves to be the exception to the rule only time will tell, but for now it feels like an announcement; Kweli has entered a new era.
Ready for me to contradict myself? Good, because here I go. There are certainly some records on Gutter Rainbows that harken back to the good ol’ days, starting with lead single Cold Rain. Centered around a bouncing piano line crafted by Ski Beatz, long time fans will be most comfortable with Cold Rain’s soulful feel and ceaselessly flowing and intelligent lyrics. In other words, it’s everything we’ve come to expect from the man, and I might be able to say the same for the jazzy Wait For You. From there, things get a little more tricky. Kweli’s been rhyming alongside Jean Grae for years, she’s been on his last two albums, but never on anything as starkly dark as Uh Oh, and while he’s never been shy about expressing romantic love, he’s never done it on song like the shadowy, burning How You Love Me. Hearing him on records like this is like being a kid and seeing your teacher in the grocery store; you recognize them, but seeing them in such a different context than your used to requires a double take.
The best moments on Gutter Rainbows actually come when Kweli pushes the hardest unto uncharted territory. For example, if I haven’t already driven the point home I’ve listen to a lot of Talib music over the years, but I’ve never heard him do anything like Tater Tot. While in eerie, almost apocalyptic beat distorts the background, Kweli tackles a narrative start out of a Coen brothers movie as an army vet who falls in love with a small town waitress, becomes involved in a large scale drug war and then is betrayed by those closest to him. For an emcee who’s usually very straightforward, it’s a remarkably creative and imaginative effort. By the same token, if you had told me back in ’98 that he’d be rhyming on a menacing cut alongside the rawer than raw Sean Price I would have told you to stop huffing paint, but that’s exactly what we get on the head-nodding Palookas. It’s also odd to hear him take on the international man of luxury role on the lightly sparkling Mr. International – “don’t get mad if I’m writing this verse on an iPad” – but while purists may be upset, Kweli’s double time flow is one of his best on the album. And to close it off, I’m On One finds the man putting in work over the kind of shouting, bumping beat usually associated with his Southern brethren. The Blast this isn’t.
Talib Kweli will never make another Train of Thought, and ultimately I wouldn’t want him to. As good as those times are, in order to continue to believe in music we need to believe the future holds as much dopeness as the past. If Gutter Rainbows proves anything, it’s that Kweli’s eyes are firmly focused on the future. He’s always shown us the way forward.
DJBooth Rating - 4 Spins
Written by Nathan S. on 01/25/11
First DJ Booth Appearance:
"Where It All Started ft. Jadakiss, Talib Kweli & Papoose" (2006)
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