Album Review: Talib Kweli’s ‘Prisoner of Conscious’

Talib Kweli-Prisoner of Conscious (Album Cover)The worst feeling in life for an artist is to feel contained–trapped, restrained, with little or no room to operate. Sometimes it is a result of our own doing, or sometimes it is unwittingly bestowed by the public.  In case of Brooklyn, New York’s own Talib Kweli Greene, he is overdue for little bit of elbow room.  As part of late 90s/early 2000s Rawkus Records line-up, Kweli created hip-hop masterpieces that have stood the test of time and still can be heard from the car next to you driving down the street to the DJ spinning at your local spot. “Definition,” “Respiration,” “Thieves in the Night,” “Brown Skin Lady,” The Blast,” “Move Something,” “Down For The Count,” and his biggest solo hit “Get By,” produced by a then up and coming Kanye West is just the short list.  But it is the sound and thought-provoking content of those early hits that has listeners labeling him a “conscious rapper,” a title that the MC has publicly challenged album after album for nearly a decade.  No human is one thing; we all consist of various ideas and energies. That is the argument Kweli makes with the title of his fifth solo album, Prisoner of Conscious.

The well-presented art design and album booklet for Conscious adds to the experience of what you are about to hear once the play button is pressed. After a shot of Kweli standing in the middle of an art museum is fourteen pages of pieces by different artists, along with their definition of what a “Prisoner of Conscious” is.  This theme of unity and collaboration is made clear on the spoken intro of the opening track, “Human Mic,” which has Kweli speaking to a group of people instructing them to “do your job…spread the word…and make it grow.” In between the production of dramatic string arrangements and falling keys by Stones Throw Records alumni Oh No, Kweli sets the tone with his trademark tongue-twisting delivery of metaphors and similes, making a statement that echoes the album’s concept, “You could have your own opinion but not your own facts.”

What follows right after is Kweli staying close to Conscious’ concept by breaking his perceived image and stringing together four of the most “feel good” records released by him in recent memory, without compromising his talent as a lyricist. “Turnt Up” is an 808-filled re-imagining of the Eric B. and Rakim classic “Paid In Full.” “Come Here,” featuring R&B’s current breakout star Miguel, is a seductive two-step jam driven by gliding pianos, bongos, and a funky “wah” rhythm guitar. “High Life,” featuring Rubix & Bajah, demands listener participation with hand claps due to its Bossa Nova flavored swinging horns and deep bass line.  “Ready Set Go” possesses maybe the catchiest hook on the entire LP, supplied by songstress Melanie Fiona as Kweli effortlessly flows over the anthemic synths and welcomed beatbox breakdown during the final chorus. Kweli’s final words on “Ready” echo his progression as a business man in the music industry stating, “That’s why I’m keeping the faith, keeping the pace/Although it’s all about the winning, it’s never about the race.”  To blossom in today’s industry, it’s all about building your own path for longevity. Kweli has successfully done such with establishing his own music companies, a consistent touring schedule, and a wave of new material.

But while there are fun-filled grooves, there are also raw, neck-snapping monsters that give Kweli the opportunity to do what he does best: tearing a microphone in half. The conclusion of the in-your-face “Hold It Now” ends with the words, “I rip the microphone and then I throw it down,” followed by Kweli literally throwing the mic to the ground. The resulting feedback puts the exclamation point on the track’s menacing aggression. But the danger reaches its crucial peak with the mayhem that is the RZA-produced “Rocket Ships,” featuring the always animated Busta Rhymes, who has made a career out of memorable guest verses such as this one.  The pounding drum rolls, stabbing organs, and gritty bass line combine Kweli lyrically with the signature sounds of the Wu-Tang Clan leader, thus creating hands down, one of the album’s standouts.

Producer S1 (Kanye West’s Power, Beyoncé’s Best Thing I Never Had, Strange Fruit Project) continues to build on the chemistry he and Kweli established on Gutter Rainbows–first with the inspirational “Push Thru,” featuring Class-A guest verses from young guns Curren$y and Kendrick Lamar with Glen Reynolds on hook duties; then the beautifully soulful “Delicate Flowers,” which finds Kweli honestly opening up about his personal love life and relationship.  “Before He Walked” is one of the surprises on the album mainly because it contains the most heartfelt verse performed by Nelly since “Luven Me,” the closer from his blockbuster 2000 debut, Country Grammar. Yes, on paper (especially 15 years ago), Nelly and Kweli sharing a track together may be unfathomable, but this is exactly the point Kweli is trying to make with Prisoner of Conscious’ underlying message. All labels, boarders, and assumptions in music should be thrown out the window in the name of free creativity.  The album comes to a bouncing conclusion with Kweli adopting a double-time delivery on the J. Cole-produced “It Only Gets Better,” assisted by the always powerful Marsha Ambrosius delivering an uplifting chorus and smooth ad libs.

Prisoner of Conscious continues in the same the vein of arguably Kweli’s most balanced and well rounded solo work, 2007’s Eardrum; successfully creating cohesion amongst an amplitude of  sonics and influences.  Talib Kweli, album by album has already long shaken the stigma of being a “conscious rapper.” Maybe it’s time for people to listen more attentively and catch up. May this album act as your first step from being a prisoner of that belief.

–Chuck Nunley

Chuck Nunley (also known as DJ Chuck “thE oLd SouL”) is a Los Angeles, California homegrown DJ/Producer/Artist, and Owner & Director of Operations of the music collective, Honor Flow Productions. Please check out the sights and sounds of H.F.P. at and follow Chuck on Twitter @thEoLdSouLHFP . Soul Claps and Salutes to you all.

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