For some reason, Talib Kweli can’t shake the dreaded “socially conscious” label given to him a decade ago. When his peers limited their topics to drugs and jewelry, Kweli’s brainy lyricism encouraged us to appreciate love, acknowledge struggle and fight for freedom, among many other things. A little older and wiser, Kweli now seems irritated by that title, responding condescendingly to those who measure him for the “socially conscious” pine box. He’s an artist, Kweli says occasionally, and should be free to discuss anything without backlash from backpackers or shrugs from the streets. Under that premise, Gutter Rainbows makes perfect sense as a decent blend of thought-provoking wordplay and no-frills stanzas, spread over a vast, trunk rattling soundtrack. For 49 minutes, Kweli and friends contend with the term, largely sacrificing so-called conscious content for raw verses, resulting in a quick, yet somewhat uneven foray into a relatively new artistic direction.
That’s not to say Kweli doesn’t evoke thoughtful emotion on Gutter Rainbows, a title that refers to the dissonant mix of oil and water found in city alleys. Those instances are limited, especially when compared with the soulful Eardrum, Kweli’s previous solo album, released in 2007. That project, which boasted stellar production from Madlib, Pete Rock and others, moved much slower than his current concoction and incorporated a broader assembly of artists to debate the benefits of healthy eating, the perception of hell and current state of hip-hop. But if that recording took long to arrive at its point, Gutter Rainbows uses direct messages to get there. “I always speak for the struggle, my people still hurtin’/I’m a name brand, I’m a product, but still a real person,” Kweli says at the beginning of “So Low”, the gospel-rich third song of this 14-track opus.
That statement rests at the heart of Kweli — a brash and complex artist whose lyrical prowess swells with each release. During his “Soundbombing” days, the knock against the Brooklyn MC was his vocal inability to project over Hi-Tek’s harmonious boom bap. By the early-2000s, his rapid baritone had grown so fluid that he sometimes flew across beats, with little regard to the rhythm. His cadence seems to blossom on “Palookas” — a term referring to incompetent or lazy people — as a chilling sparring session with fellow Brooklyn native Sean Price. “You ain’t got a verse better than my worst one,” Kweli and Price repeat over a haunting mixture of organs, drums and congos.
Gutter Rainbows still has hiccups, as the production sometimes feels lax against Kweli’s energetic vocals. “Ain’t Waiting”, featuring MC/singer Outasight, is an uptempo R & B/disco fusion that doesn’t fit well within the album’s scope. “Mr. International”, an ode to life on the go, also seems clunky and out of place, especially when sandwiched between the aforementioned “Palookas” and the Audio Two-meets-Beastie Boys “I’m On One”, a methodical demonstration of 1980s cipher-driven music. The jazzy “Wait For You”, with its cascading drum cymbals and electric keys, is a clear highlight and a refreshing throwback to Kweli’s Black Star roots (just think “K.O.S.” from his iconic collaborative album with Mos Def.)
Kweli will reportedly release the long-awaited Prisoner of Consciousness album later this year, a drastic shift in his creative course. Consequently, Gutter Rainbows is a decent appetizer for said shift, as it honors Kweli’s humble beginnings while foreshadowing an expected musical evolution. We’ve seen it before, though: OutKast’s Aquemini was the precursor to Stankonia and Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, and Graduation was Kanye West’s first venture into the pop/hip-hop stadium sound he’s since trademarked. While Rainbows is not on the same scale as those examples, it’s still a respectable transition to his new focus, proving that Kweli is not just conscious. He’s very much awake.