Voices from the Gutter

Word on the street is that Talib Kweli has already chosen a name for his next album: Prisoner of Conscious. It’s definitely a significant choice for Kweli. He’s always hated the label “conscious rap” even as he’s been lauded as a pillar of this mythical genre. It seems time has unfortunately proven his misgivings right. The Roots are openly allying with billionaire-funded projects to “reform” public schools. Common is lighting the White House Christmas tree. One has to wonder if “conscious” has just become a code word for “establishment.”

In the face of all this, Kweli remains as independent as ever. Some writers have attempted to take him to task for doing some very “un-conscious” things. When TheLoop21 blogger Mychal Smith accused him of selling out for recording a song with Gucci Mane, Kweli put Smith in his place, charging him with being among an all-too-prevalent cabal of writers who “would rather judge the masses as a foolish body, greatly in need of their intellectual musings…”

In short, Kweli’s going to do what Kweli’s going to do, labels and criticism be damned. That’s evidenced clearly in his choice to take a big detour from Prisoner to record and release Gutter Rainbows.

It’s a confusing move, especially since the latter is composed greatly of songs originally intended for Prisoner of Conscious. Kweli has remained more or less mum on the reasons, but still insists that Prisoner is dropping very shortly. With all this it’s certainly easy to dismiss Gutter Rainbows as a rushed afterthought bound to get lost in the shuffle.

That’s thankfully not the case. Though Rainbows does occasionally falter in its coherence it has all the earmarks of vintage Talib Kweli. Lead single “I’m On One” provides the requisite club track, with buzz-fuzz funk front-loaded over synthy boom-bap while Kwe lyrically throws back his shoulders with savvy bravado. Tracks like “Mr. International” and “Palookas” see his rhymes skate that ambiguous line between humor and poignancy that he’s gotten so good at walking over the years.

So what is it that allows the album to rise above being completely superfluous? Probably the time-worn truism that the more things change, the more they stay the same. The shout-outs on the album’s title track (“voice of the voiceless, hope of the hopeless”) might sound similar to the ones we get on the opener of 2002’s Quality, but there isn’t really the sense that it’s for lack of material.

Back in ‘04 Kweli made the kind of astute post-9/11 observations that would put him in Glenn Beck’s crosshairs: “Get searched on the plane / Arabic first name.” “Cold Rain,” with its soulful piano-driven aura, shows not just how little has changed, but actually how the atmosphere of Tea Party Mosque-baiting Koran-burning has made it all a lot worse:

Yeah I’m a product of Reaganomics
From the blocks where he rocking Feds like J Electronica
Drop and make this a lock
If he promises where the heart is
Whether Jesus or Mohammad
Regardless of where the Mosque is
They hope for the Apocalypse like a self-fulfilling prophecy
Tell me when do we stop it?

It’s hard to find a more apt cross-section of modern life in the beast’s belly. This is Kweli’s strongest lyrical suit–his ability to sketch vivid pictures of real and unflinching life and ask, rightfully, why. He does the same in throughout the album, whether it’s with deadly seriousness while telling the story of a forgotten vet in “Tater Tot” or bouncing off of Jean Grae’s maniacal hilarity in “Uh Oh.”

Throughout, even at the album’s weakest points, it’s obvious we’re listening to someone who hasn’t caved under the weight of some very disorienting times. Expectations for “conscious” artists to do everything they can to back Obama have been great indeed, and with so little promise on the horizon during recent months, it’s no wonder that some of Kweli’s contemporaries have made this or that compromise. In the process, though, some very important voices stand to be lost in the shuffle.

Luckily, Talib Kweli has never allowed that pigeonhole to be applied to him. Sticking to your guns might mean sometimes getting passed over by the spotlight. When albums like Gutter Rainbows come along though, they remind us that doing just that is exactly what keeps rap’s spine intact.

Alexander Billet, a music journalist and solidarity activist in Chicago, runs the website Rebel Frequencies. He is a frequent contributor to SocialistWorker.org, Dissident Voice, ZNet and the Electronic Intifada. He has also appeared in TheNation.com, Z Magazine, New Politics and the International Socialist Review. His first book, "Sounds of Liberation: Music In the Age of Crisis and Resistance," is expected out in the fall; you can donate to the project on Kickstarter. He can be reached at rebelfrequencies@gmail.com Read other articles by Alexander.