As Talib Kweli’s digital only release, Gutter Rainbows, hits online retailers today, the artist most commonly lumped in with “conscious” rappers is taking this opportunity to give fans a taste of what’s to come from him with a business model he now believes in.
What’s interesting about Kweli is how he’s gone from underground, backpack hero to a mainstream threat, coming off the most commercially successful release of his career with 2007’s Eardrum, which has sold roughly 300,000 copies.
Admittedly learning how to run a label on the fly, Kweli is hoping to turn the label mishandling of his Reflection Eternal promotion, which left he and collaborator, Hi-Tek’s name off the cover of their album Revolutions Per Minute in favor of the Reflection Eternal moniker, which isn’t the official name of the group, leading to much fan confusion as to where to look for the album, into a positive.
WATCH AN ORIGINAL GRIO INTERVIEW WITH TALIB KWELI and HI-TEK HERE:
Knowing that stores will determine how many copies of his album they’ll order by the sales of his last, he’s banking the next time he issues a hard copy release, they’ll look to Eardrum because it was the last to actually have his name on it.
His respect and critical acclaim is unquestioned. Turning that into album sales has been a task all its own.
He’s carved out a niche with long-time fans and listeners that will keep him booked on tour all over the world for the foreseeable future, even moonlighting as a celebrity DJ most recently, but that core group of fans isn’t enough to make the buzz match the Billboard.
But true to himself, Kweli hasn’t forced working relationships with producers out his comfort zone and hasn’t kicked out major money to buy a beat from the guy who’s hot right now, even it means no beats from friend and collaborators like Kanye West won’t be on his albums.
Although, his most successful album to date was a beautiful blend of his usual rhetoric with a dose of commercial appeal with beats from crossover hit makers like West and Will.i.am and classic hip-hop from the likes of Pete Rock and Madlib.Promotion for his albums has always been interesting. With the radio ready hits not so easy to pick out and budgets not as large as his ‘hot right now’ label mates, the media blitz associated with most releases aren’t always the norm for Kweli, but he’s maintained.
His fifth studio album, Gutter Rainbows, features a sound that’s sonically and lyrically familiar albeit a format you won’t be breaking the cellophane wrapping on.
As usual, Kweli is packing a lot of knowledge into a little song, not always successfully.
The battle between his vocals and the beats is toeing the line of distracting, especially on a song like “Gutter Rainbows” where gems may have been missed because the beat and flow that don’t play well off each other, even if individually, they’re good, they’re not in sync.
The mellower tracks find Kweli in a great groove.
Produced by S1, “Mr. International” with Nigel Hall features bars not lost in the laid back vibe, even if it did had to bounce back from a Fonzi reference that dated Talib to a degree. “So Low” fit the same bill.
Kendra Ross and S1 join Kweli on “Wait For You” as he addresses his core audience and their internal chatter on just where he stands. Comparing himself to De’Angelo and Sade, he notes, “keep that good music coming and they’ll wait for you”.
One of my favorite tracks was “Friends and Family”. Beginning with Kweli saying, “you are now witnessing the demise of the music business,” and running through his career like a condensed biography of his rap career that includes shout outs to his fellow BlackSmith artists, Strong Arm Steady and Jean Grae and even explored his rap career a relationships with The Roots, Dave Chappelle, Kanye West, his parents, even touching on the Lyricist Lounge era.
“Ain’t Waiting” featuring Outasight was upbeat, high energy and skillfully produced by 6th Sense. “Cold Rain” was interesting blend of hip-hop and gospel behind the production precision of Ski Beatz.
Few tracks top Jean Grae and Kweli on “Uh Oh” a collaboration that gave the line, “I’m a man of God who asked the devil for some FaceTime” and was so comfortable, it could be an interesting album if they ever chose to just become a duo.
Flashes of Kweli’s sense of humor and a consciousness of how he’s perceived sprinkle the album as well. Whether it’s “After the Rain” or Ed Lover adding his now virally famous, “C’mon son” to “In On One”.
The politically charged story rap of “Tater Tot” will fly over most people’s heads even with multiple listens.
What’s weird is Kweli’s braggadocio was actually refreshing on “Palookas” and the West Coast vibe of “How You Love Me” was enjoyable if not forgettable. Chance Infinite took advance of his opportunity to shine with Kweli on the super low key, piano driven, “Self Savior”
With all the free music Kweli has released this year, this feels like an extension of that. A prequel to his next album, Prisoner of Consciousness, rather than a full-fledged studio album. Entirely listenable just lacking that special something.
Some rappers just aren’t destined to dominate the charts. Just like some athletes can play for over a decade and be very, very good never crossing that threshold into superstardom, it may be Kweli’s lyricism and integrity put him in a place where he won’t get a taste of what it’s like to be “the guy” in the current hip-hop landscape but there’s tons of artist who’d kill to have the lane he has right now.