Talib Kweli has earned a reputation over his nearly 20 years in the hip-hop business for being an artist who cares about the bigger issues. Labelled as a ‘conscious rapper’ – effectively meaning he rhymes about the bigger picture rather than the often cited crude sex and violent themes of more commercial gansta rap – he has always been more likely to be penning lyrics about political prisoners than about riding around in escalades, or about civil rights issues rather than accessing the VIP area.
It has been a label he has never been wholly comfortable with, mainly because he hates the labeling that goes on in the music business and the title of this, his sixth solo album, is an a straight up dig at those who have tried to pigeonhole him. So, while Prisoner Of Conscious (also known as P.O.C) has some interesting collaborations with well known artists like Busta Rhymes, Curren$y and Nelly, Kweli wants it to be an example of his artistry as a showman and accomplished recording artist rather than the maverick that raises the issues other rappers ignore.
This explains why, thanks to the production help from Rza, Oh No and Symbolic One (among others) P.O.C sounds and flows like a collection of great tracks rather than a narrative more common in hip-hop. In that sense, it isn’t a landmark hip-hop record but It has a real sense of itself – brimming with confidence and ideas, flirting with old school beats, r&b and even favela folk with the inclusion of Seu Jorge on one track.
So, while it lacks a little coherence more usual with rap albums, Kweli’s latest is no worse off for it. From the lush strings and piano production on Human Mic to the bongo drum and smooth and silk lyrics Miguel provides on love song, Come Here, the album oozes with quality, which easily matches up to Kweli’s usual quality in flow and delivery.
The guest producers only add to this. Rocket Ships, produced by Rza and featuring Busta Rhymes stands out for its old school beats, horns and keys, Busta even manages to tone down his usually aggressive delivery to blend with the Wu Tang Clan style easy flow of the track. Likewise, Push Thru, which has had the Symbolic One treatment has a great Kanye West-esque off-beat to it, coupled with a great cameos from Curren$y, Kendrick Lamar and Glen Reynolds.
Aside from the content, Kweli is also known in the industry for his lyrical dexterity and he won’t disappoint fans of his flow on Prisoner Of Conscious. On The Black Album, Jay-Z famously said “If skills sold, truth be told, I’d probably be, lyrically, Talib Kweli”. It was an admission that in his eyes you had to be commercial and gifted to succeed – Kweli’s two million albums sales may pale in comparison, but, for many hip-hop fans, it’s what marks him out as one to watch.
On Hold It Now, one of the few more intense tracks on P.O.C he says he gets the room “hotter than bikram yoga”. On Nelly featuring Before He Walks Away he takes a swipe at those that put those pesky labels on him and his music “a picture of you comes ups up when I google monotony”. Elsewhere there are references to 9/11 and chain gangs as well as a few about traditional hip-hop staples girls and success.
P.O.C is an album borne of Talib Kweli’s frustration at being defined in his industry. But that isn’t a warning for those who love that about him to stay away, and this isn’t a concept, or a wild divergence from his earlier work. Rather it’s a bigger push musically and collaboratively with less emphasis on the politics that have dominated his past.