Talib Kweli is certainly one of the more consistent artists hip-hop has to offer. Going into his music, there’s always an implicit understanding that you’re going to get literary references, rallies against social institutions, allusions to political figures. Usually, you could also expect his verbosity to get the best of him at times, forgoing technical style for lyrical flair. Gutter Rainbows, even moreso than Eardrum or the Madlib collaboration Liberation, does a lot to dispel that old truism. You’ll rarely find Kweli forcing something to go over your head or losing track of the beat in order to make a point.
What does happen, though, is that some of Kweli’s recent attempts to crossover into less ‘conscious’ territory appear. “Mr. International”, for example, is a sort of soft rock take on motivational rap that has Kweli referencing Lloyd Banks’ “Beamer Benz or Bentley” and throwing out a lot of veiled comments on his relative wishes and success. It features some of Kweli’s more impressive rapping, it’s just a very lukewarm song that feels like it’s trying to have things both ways. Usually, it’s hard for that kind of stuff to work. Kweli does his best with it, but it’s definitely not a highlight. The production doesn’t help much either, and that’s true for most of the LP’s first half. “I’m on One”, the lead single, is a bigger mistake in my opinion, with a Beastie Boys beat and drug references that just don’t feel right with Kweli. The second half sees Kweli returning to jazzier, funkier roots to much better results, but I can see some listeners giving up before track 8 or 9.
In fact, the only production that really stands out here, perhaps as expected, is Ski’s work on “Cold Rain”. Fresh of his string of successes with Curren$y, Ski continues his hot streak with a very live, funk-gospel beat. It’s something that I’d like to hear a lot more from Kweli, but perhaps I’m just one of those unfair guys that expects him to retreat to the sound of Train of Thought every time out. Also notable is that Gutter Rainbows is Kweli’s first fully independent release, so perhaps he isn’t working with the best budget. The inspiration for Gutter Rainbows comes from puddles of oil and water in the streets of New York, and the unexpected beauty that comes from the two elements’ impossible fusion. Aside from “Cold Rain”, “Wait for You”, “Friends & Family” and a few others, Kweli on these productions brings to mind that sort of grimey disfunction. As Kweli turns in one of his more rigidly solid vocal performances, the music often refuses to come all the way with him.
It will be interesting to see where Kweli goes in 2011, as Gutter Rainbows sits in a similar position of Kweli’s discography as Ghostface Killah’s Apollo Kids. Kweli intends to release Prisoners of Consciousness this year with a major’s backing, and the album’s concept stems from the backlash he received after collaborating with Gucci Mane last fall. It will be very interesting to see how Kweli intends to make that concept work, and with it in mind it’s sometimes hard to listen to Gutter Rainbows as anything other than a quick piece to satisfy his core audience. Despite limp production, Kweli is often a great presence here, and fans certainly won’t be disappointed.