Ever since the late 90s, Talib Kweli has been a reliable source of quality hip hop. “Train of Thought” with Hi-Tek was a superb debut, with Kweli reaching his artistic peak on “Eardrum”, a great combination of top-tier, polished production and Kweli’s trademark quick-fire delivery. “Gutter Rainbows” from 2011 was underwhelming and surprisingly soulless, but included some certified bangers (“Palookas”, “I’m On One”). “Prisoner of Conscious” sees Talib Kweli more than ever, not sounding like the “conscious rapper” he has been labelled with, but just mature. There’s no adultery, violence or an abundance of profanity to hide any shortcomings Kweli has, because quite frankly he is better than that. This album in fact feels more like a follow-up to “Eardrum”, with a great deal of production being piano-led, crisp pieces of easy-going hip hop.
Being a fan of R&B songstresses Melanie Fiona and Marsha Ambrosius, it was nice to hear them nail their hooks, with Marsha in particular putting her stamp all over “It Only Gets Better” (surprisingly produced by J. Cole). “Rocket Ships” is mildly disappointing and shows RZA’s beats just aren’t what they used to be. It grows on you the more you hear it, but I still feel RZA is at his best in lo-fi, grimey mode, rather than the rich, cinematic sound he now represents. Not only that but Busta Rhymes spits a sloppy, hollow verse, relying heavily on his presence more than anything. It’s a shame because Kweli attacks the track with a hunger that isn’t shown as much as it should be. It can be said that he sounds better than he ever has before, often letting the odd sloppy flow slip in on previous albums. “Delicate Flowers” is a superb marriage of flow, emotion and sounds like LL Cool J’s “Authentic” album should have been. Unfortunately the track only features two verses and ends after 3 minutes. Eric B & Rakim’s “Paid In Full” is neatly paid homage to on “Turnt Up” before Kweli litters the Trend-laced banger with quotables like “I’m not looking for new followers, I’m looking for new leaders” (another sly Rakim reference). Despite a large chunk of the record being enjoyable, and certainly better than “Gutter Rainbows” released previous, there is one glaring error. “Upper Echelon” is a combination of 80s hard drums and modern club music, but ultimately can’t hide the fact it is an attempt to crossover. It still beggars belief how rappers think one club song will drive up sales in the era of MP3. We don’t buy the albums based on one song and get stuck with the rest now, we have the luxury of pick-n-choose! Nelly shows up on “Before He Walked” sounding devoid of emotion, but even his annoying tones can’t detract from an absolute monster of a beat from E. Jones. Seriously, this is an album highlight that if produced by Dr Dre, would be receiving rave reviews. “Push Thru” meanwhile sees in-demand Kendrick Lamar steal the show atop S1’s stop-start (and admittedly dope as f***) sounds, a dream collaboration that for once lives up to the billing.
When Jay-Z said he wanted to lyrically be Talib Kweli, it didn’t put Kweli on exactly, but it certainly made more rap fans check him out. “Eardrum” may not have been the massive success it should have been, Kweli even mentions that he “brought Timberlake in and you still didn’t listen”, but Kweli isn’t part of this electro-Will.I.Am bullshit that represents hip hop in the eyes of your average Joe. “Prisoner of Conscious” is, for the most part, Kweli excelling in his role as a rapper that doesn’t resort to ignorant or cliched themes 90% of rappers fill their bars with. With some MCs sounding daft, slinging crack and fucking bitches in to their forties, Talib Kweli’s “Prisoner of Conscious” is not only refreshing, but proves Kweli is more relevant than he has ever been.