It’s truly hard to imagine the world Talib Kweli lives in. Sure, we have some data points — for instance, based on his conviction that he’s coming “from another angle” with this, his new album Gutter Rainbows, he clearly thinks it’s 1995. That must take some work. If he’s living in the first term of the Clinton administration, what does he make of all these rappers wandering around in day-glo and playing guitars? Does he understand what Fruity Loops is? I guess maybe at first he heard some 808 and thought he’d slipped back to 1985, but he should’ve caught on when Kid Cudi had to tell him that hoverboards don’t work on water.
Despite all the signals, there’s Kweli, blithely tooling up his battle rhymes and crystal-clear, 70s soul beats, taking breaks only to laugh his ass off at Animaniacs (his mom has them on the DVR and secretly presses “play” at exactly 4:30 every afternoon so he thinks it’s broadcast). Such a time-warp existence would explain why he hasn’t made any major changes to his sound, his flow, or his lyrics since he got modern production values on 2002’s Reflection Eternal. Of course, there’s a reason the phrase “boom-bap” is almost always preceded by the word “classic,” and that’s what Kweli was about even back in Black Star days: occupying hip-hop’s mile-wide throwback streak. And new tracks like “Wait for You” (Rainbows’ best) have a nice, jazzy roll that’ll be right in the wheelhouse of those who still feel the same way. But still, the style is now officially a throwback of a throwback, with enough John-Connor-Causing-His-Own-Birth convolutions to give you a migraine if you think about it too hard.
On that point, no harm, no foul; if you’re into the style, the beats here won’t hurt you. The real terminator of audience enjoyment are Kweli’s verses. Time has been markedly unkind to his backpacker-punchline style; I can’t remember him ever saying anything really mind-boggling, but I sure don’t remember him being as outright corny as he is here: “Meet Mr. International, on the runway more than a fashion show/ It’s all love like MacEnroe, but sorry I have to go.” That’s a hook, and the verses are beyond insubstantial. It goes beyond corny to lazy, such as when, on the title track, Kweli raps that he’s “more murderous than Cain[’s] famous brother.”
If you’re trying to make music that’s the “voice of the voiceless, hope for the hopeless,” you might want to actually get the Bible right.
Kweli still has an ear for beats, and despite some particular low points here, his lyrics were always overshadowed by his flow, which is as sharp as ever. It’s not his fault that a generation of Soulja Boys and (let’s face it) Kanye Wests have devalued that particular aspect of the art in favor of personal expressiveness. But it is his fault that he literally hasn’t changed at all over the last eight years; there’s almost nothing here that would have been attention-getting on Reflection Eternal. The only exception is “I’m on One,” a dark trap beat by Khrysis that actually shows Kweli could make something more in line with today’s darker, angsty, more progressive mood, if he had any desire to live in the present.