Sunday, July 14, 2013

Album Review: Talib Kweli – Prisoner of Conscious (2013)

This thing they call Hip hop is evolving at such a fast pace these days, it’s seriously hard work for a grizzly old school punter like myself to keep up. And of course these days, 30 odd years after the genre took its first formative steps on the mean streets of New York, the definition of “old school” is now something completely different to what it once was. For me it means Sugarhill, Def Jam, Grandmaster Flash, Eric B & Rakim, Public Enemy, the Beasties, and the earliest b-boy delights of Mantronix. For others, it will mean something far more contemporary.

Over the years I’ve abandoned any crazy notion of trying to keep up with a genre that only very rarely connects with me on any level beyond the superficial. But there are certain exponents of the form I’ve tended to follow ... at various times I’ve really enjoyed the work of The Roots, Mos Def, and Common. The odd album from Dr Dre (The Chronic) and Nas (Illmatic) have also left their mark, but generally I’m what you might call a Hip hop sceptic, and the more commercial the art-form has become, the less inclined I’ve been to embrace it. I dunno, maybe it’s just a contrarian thing.
And then there’s this guy, Talib Kweli. I can’t really say I’m a big fan but Kweli has frequently proven a reliable option whenever I’ve felt the need scratch the surface and dig a little deeper, whenever I’ve despaired at the overblown generic crap being served up under the guise of “Hip hop” by commercial radio or other forms of mainstream media.

Kweli has an impressive body of work behind him and I thought 2011’s Gutter Rainbows album was probably his best effort yet (though, in fairness, I haven’t heard a lot of his really early stuff). Either way, my enjoyment of Gutter Rainbows was the catalyst for me downloading Prisoner of Conscious when it was released earlier this year.

At first the album title itself comes across as being a little absurd … no, it isn’t supposed to be Prisoner of Conscience … I’m told that Kweli’s reference to “Conscious” comes from his standing as one of the leading exponents of a sub-genre called Conscious Rap.

So it’s Prisoner of Conscious, and that description does at least align with the type of material we’ve seen on past work, which has been more about the social and political, and less about the size of his wallet or the number of notches on his bedpost.

I have to say though, this album is something of a disappointment. I had expected more and very rarely does it rise above the ranks of the ordinary. It lacks a certain vitality and zest, the rhymes at times come across as slightly laboured, and despite there being some high profile names among the support cast – Kendrick Lamar, Busta Rhymes, and Nelly, for example – this isn’t anywhere near as compelling as it once might have been.
Of the 15 tracks on offer – at just under an hour of listening time – very few really stand out. ‘Turnt Up’ appeals as something of a curiosity with its ‘Paid In Full’ Mark 2 eccentricities (of both beat and flow), while the hired help of Miguel comes up trumps on the slowjam ‘Come Here’. Other than that, there isn’t much here to really grab me.

The album feels front loaded, and it seems all the best bits occur within the first 20 minutes. The second half in particular becomes an exercise in applying a little patience, one that isn’t really ever fully rewarded. I’m continually tempted to activate the metaphorical fast forward and the occasional auto-tuned chorus is usually more than enough to persuade me to do exactly that.

Ultimately, the most disappointing thing is that I know Talib Kweli is capable of much better than this. I’ll probably give it a few more spins in the months ahead but I won’t be revisiting this one with any degree of regularity, and when I do, I certainly won’t be harbouring the same level of expectation I did upon its arrival in my inbox.

I could be kind and suggest that the rest of a very mediocre field has slowly caught up with Kweli, but I genuinely don’t believe that’s the case. With Prisoner of Conscious, it feels like the opposite applies, that Kweli has lost a little of his former mojo, and this work feels like one giant step back into the abyss.

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