It’s been nearly a decade since the first Reflection Eternal album, Train of Thought, though the cover of that album played down the duo’s moniker by stressing their individual names, Talib Kweli and Hi-Tek, to capitalize on the success of the Mos Def and Talib Kweli Are Blackstar album, which Hi-Tek also produced. The ten-year gap doesn’t mean that the pair hasn’t been busy, or that they haven’t collaborated on individual songs over the years. It does mean that expectations are high. Revolutions Per Minute is essentially a sequel to an album that’s highly considered in hip-hop circles, the debut statement of a rapper who was then on the rise and went on to bigger things on albums to come.
In those ten years both Kweli and Hi-Tek have progressed, musically and career-wise. On Hi-Tek’s three Hi-Teknology albums he built a forward-looking soul sound that tapped into the talents of guest rappers and, even more successfully, singers. On his albums Quality (2002), The Beautiful Struggle (2004) and Eardrum (2007), plus some lesser releases, Kweli advanced his style of rhyming, a mix of similes, storytelling, and protest over an eclectic array of musical styles. Eardrum was especially eclectic. He got a jazz groove from Kanye West, a radio-ready beat from Will.I.Am. He went South with some talented guest Southerners, threw in a little gospel, and more.
On Revolutions Per Minute Hi-Tek has created a sound as consistent in atmosphere as his own albums but deeper in scope, allowing for Kweli’s apparently increasing desire to rhyme over different types of beats. Songs like “Lifting Off”, a ethereal track emulating the lost/escapist feeling of drug addiction, and the skeletal, glitchy “In the Red” are exercises in deep atmosphere, as impressive as any track Hi-Tek has created yet. Yet he and Kweli also deliver straight-up dance tracks for the club that are just as immediate and memorable, especially “Midnight Hour”, more or less a duet with Estelle that puts her seamlessly with Kweli and keeps the focus on the melody and the groove.
The other winning club number is the faster-paced “Get Loose”, featuring Chester French. The song builds in an acknowledgement that dumb dance songs carry their own pleasures, as Kweli comments on pop hits: “You hate how it all sounds like a ringtone / but when it comes on in the club you sing along”. The last verse of the song is a repetition of the first, a now-classic hip-hop trick that never fails to appeal to me on an instinctual level, a reminder of how important surfaces are in all types of popular music, even for an artist often praised for his intellect.
Whatever the mood of the song, both Kweli and Hi-Tek are at the top of their game on Revolutions Per Minute. Each of their guest stars are too, especially the rappers, all of whom keep right up with Kweli: Bun B, Jay Electronica, J Cole and Mos Def. Kweli’s rhymes have always been flush with details and delivered at a fast clip. Here those characteristics are amplified. He’s hard to keep up with, but not ripping through nonsense just for the sake of speed. Kweli crams ideas and scenes in all of his words, making careful or repeat listening feel like goldmining. For all the winning energy Kweli and Hi-Tek had back in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, here they match it with a more mature, richer energy.
On Train of Thought, they sounded young and hungry. This time around they sound experienced and frustrated. Even when boasting or seemingly rhyming for rhyming ‘s sake, Kweli keeps focusing on the pains of making a career out of music. The overriding themes of the album are the importance money plays in life, what it means to build a career in hip-hop, the differences between fame and work, what celebrity does to a person and to how people relate to that person.
The first proper song, “City Playgrounds”, lays a lot of this out quickly, even furiously, over a creeping, understated beat and piano chords. On Kweli’s mind is the way artists are perceived by audiences: “Just because you know all about the artist / don’t mean you know the person”. Part of the subtext of the song is the way his music initially attracted a serious “underground” hip-hop audience that wasn’t ready for him to rap on later albums for the sheer fun of it, especially if that meant he was calling a song “Gun Music” and sounding tough on it, or putting himself over a flashier or more “pop”-sounding track than listeners would expect. For someone who still hasn’t gotten the lesson that Kweli, despite his debut single’s title “The Manifesto”, isn’t all about teaching and protesting, in “City Playgrounds” he declares, baldly, “You know what my advice is? / Fuck my advice / live your life.”
Taken as a whole, Revolutions Per Minute offers a specific and complicated vision of what it means to be an artist. It presents the notion that music-making is about dedication and practice, about practical business decisions as much as art, while also being a manner of “exorcising” ghosts and “testifying” to what’s going on in the world (as he puts it on “Back Again”). To sign a record deal is to enter a deal with the devil, and every musician needs to know it, Kweli notes repeatedly. On the closing track, “My Life (Outro)”, he states, “we getting paid in wages of sin”.
While navigating these treacherous business waters, the temptations of fame are also always hanging around your brain, calling your name. The song “Got Work (Fame)” personifies fame as a temptress singing a hook and as a demon who will suck your soul away. The would-be star of the the song winds up, “staring at the man in the mirror / wondering who you are”. Three songs later, on “In the Red”, Kweli brings up the man who sang “Man in the Mirror”, the late Michael Jackson, as an example of someone who gave his soul to stardom, who became enslaved to getting enough money to support the lifestyle of a star. Kweli then delivers one of the most quotable rhymes on an album filled with them: “A shame how our heroes is broke / we call ‘em stars / that’s because when they fallin’ to earth / they fallin’ hard”.
The final song on the album, “My Life (Outro)”, is from a third-person perspective but comes off like a personal diagnosis of Kweli’s own struggles with the push-pull of stardom. He ponders giving everything up, mocks the notion of an artist delivering the truth in his music (“he revealing the truth / like he a portal”), and poignantly illustrates the way pursuing music stardom can interfere with a family life. The “measure of a man” is keeping your head together and staying grounded, he concludes, staying sensible within the madness. The songs sets these struggles specifically in a time when money is tight, and so does the album. The whole album takes that awareness that what we expect from our musicians isn’t necessarily what they can give us and marries it to the fact that economic times are hard.
Kweli, Hi-Tek, and pretty much all of their guest stars, present the times we’re living in as one where people are running out of choices. On “Strangers (Paranoid)”, Bun B expresses it with anger and sadness: “Why the government want to keep me in debt for?” On the posse cut “Just Begun”, Jay Electronica gives a dynamite account of trying to make a life in New York City while his heart is in his struggling hometown of New Orleans. It starts vividly, “smile on my face / tears of a sad clown / feeling out of place / as I whistle a cab down”. Revolutions Per Minute contains other stray references to Hurricane Katrina, government bailouts, corporate layoffs, crime in the city, and other timely matters of heartbreak and pain, which together help make its focus on the struggles of “making it” less about Kweli himself and more part of a larger societal story.
The timeliest song, at least right now, is “Ballad of the Black Gold”, about the havoc the oil industry has wreaked around the world. The most ambitious song in storytelling, weaving together facts and outrage, is also the most incendiary song on the album, a pointed dissection of the varied affects the hunger for oil has had on the world. Kweli touches on issues way beyond oil itself, like the way power corrupts and the way the actions of one country affect so many others. This is writing about social problems that goes way beyond just expressing anger, while also staying away from empty slogans or political posturing.
That song, like many on the album, demonstrates yet another definition of rhyming. It’s one Kweli explains in “Ends”, another song focused on financial struggles: “Lyrics merely taking a picture / this is photography”. Rhyming isn’t just about keeping your head above water financially, then, and not just about loving the sound words have when leaving your mouth. It’s about a compulsion to put your perspective down in song. Kweli is still doing that as well as anyone.