Escaping an ingrained persona in the music industry can’t be easy. With the transparently titled Prisoner of Conscious, Talib Kweli’s not trying to reinvent himself as much as contest the label “conscious” that’s been foisted upon him, whether it’s been weaponized as a pejorative to dismiss his music — by listeners scoffing with rebellious teenage pride as they presumably bump a more menacing, and therefore “authentic,” rapper — or used to restrict his exploration of other sub genres by forcibly confining him within a precise, easily delineated sound. His response is to collaborate with artists you wouldn’t anticipate finding on a Talib record — Curren$y, Nelly, and Seu Jorge — and to select some incongruous beats for a Brooklynite approaching 40, like the hyphy-aping single “Upper Echelon” (on which Talib sounds surprisingly comfortable for a Brooklynite approaching 40). The result is a teetering record that ultimately finds a nice balance between tradition and experimentation, moving forward artistically while also providing listeners with everything they’ve come to expect from Talib Kweli: bars crammed with as many words as will feasibly fit without bursting, optimistic lyrics in the hardened face of hardship (over soaring soul and gospel instrumentals), and yeah, defiantly, consciousness.
“Conscious” hip-hop shouldn’t be condemned in itself as long as it can musically back up its (sometimes mawkish) messages of encouragement. After the tepid reception of his last album, Talib seems to have spent time refining his final product, indulging in as many delays and last-minute label switches as were necessary to ensure a return to Quality. Still, there are some mixed messages here concerning his position to being “conscious.” He denies the confinement of rigid categories, ignoring barriers to make the music he wants to, but there are a few fraught attempts to distance himself from that lingering C-word, like the confused, potentially self-accusatory refrain “Stop it/ with all the soap operas and the soap boxes” from “Turnt Up.” Later, he constructs his own intellectual/emotional binary on “Before He Walked,” which declares that “music is emotion that’s lost on the intellectuals” — baffling for a musician from a family of college professors whose career has been defined by lyrical erudition. He ultimately embraces what could be simplified as conscious hip-hop, but statements like those make one wonder if, in one of its previous incarnations, the album were an attempt to break free entirely from his eponymous prison to start anew.
A few forgettable collaborations and sing-by-number hooks aside (the usually spirited Seu Jorge sounds especially enervated on “Favela Love,” which languishes until a jaunty guitar riff revives it well after the four-minute mark), many of the guest verses on the record pleasantly surprise: Nelly, perhaps battling his own categorical prison, shows up and absolves himself admirably on the gospel-esque “Before He Walked,” while Busta Rhymes challenges Talib to a space race on the RZA-produced “Rocket Ships.” And although the latter song ends in a photo finish that’s too close to call, it’s Talib’s verses, in their sheer consistency and care, that are most memorable overall, above all outside contributions, on Prisoner of Conscious.
Too often hip-hop is content to proceed as a masculine power trip, and while it’s done some very admirable emancipatory things by granting a voice to downtrodden men, it often comes at the expense of denying female subjectivity. This is nothing new, but it’s still nice to see women granted their own stories now and then, which Talib did memorably on the Jean Grae collab “Black Girl Pain” off The Beautiful Struggle and also does here on “Hamster Wheel,” Prisoner of Conscious’s strongest track. By his fifth solo album, he’s long figured out how to sound natural with a style that, in its refusal to slow down, once risked giving way to an ungainly wordiness: “Hamster Wheel” is smooth and effortless in both its beat and delivery, telling a compelling, socially conscious (there’s that word again) story without succumbing to the sanctimoniousness of which rappers like Talib are often accused.
Positivity can be preachy — a complaint that will always be leveled against Talib — but what many people forget is how important a release like POC is for POC. As most people of color will tell you, race isn’t an issue that will just go away if it’s ignored long enough, as many safeguarders of white supremacy in 2013 vehemently proclaim; as a topic of discussion, it’s as relevant as ever. It might sound cheesy to end an album with a song called “It Only Gets Better,” evoking the strained inspirational pep talk of Dan Savage’s It Gets Better campaign, but it contains still-urgent messages like “Just because the President is black there’s no more racism?/ Post-racial, more like most-racial, the hate for you disgraceful/ Don’t let it take you off your base: let it motivate you.” Some might malign the lyric for its unabashed sincerity, already overt in the song title and its repeated hook, but it contains a crucial idea that needs to be propagated in a period that’s ostensibly become color-blind (it’s not), as the great mask of multiculturalism has supposedly solved all problems of equality for people of color (it hasn’t), when neoliberals continue to blame the socioeconomic disparities of people who are systematically discriminated against on individuals who’ve supposedly failed to work hard enough. Don’t believe them. Listen!!! to Talib.