Talib Kweli’s new LP Prisoner of Conscious opens with him speaking to an Occupy Wall Street crowd, or a simulation of the same, and ends with him declaring, “Free Pussy Riot”. That’s on “It Only Gets Better”, the last song before a bonus track. Before mentioning Pussy Riot he runs through a litany of political prisoners, alive or departed, and frames the album title as an expression of support for them: “Prisoner of conscious / whenever life gets you down / think about those freedom fighters / those who put they life on the line / those who get jailed for their thoughts.”
So on the one hand, Kweli is using the title to refer to prisoners of conscience, to express solidarity with those unafraid to stand up for their beliefs. On the other hand, the title clearly signifies the burden of expectation that Kweli has struggled with since the beginning. Let’s return to 2002 for a second, where Kweli fans express displeasure that he did a song called “Gun Music”, that he worked with DJ Quik, etc. Once you’re tagged as “conscious”, as socially conscious hip-hop, all audiences expect you to do is preach politics, to echo their opinions back to them. Don’t do dance tracks, don’t collaborate with thugs, don’t do anything that they wouldn’t expect you to do. That’s been one of the basic stories of Kweli’s career, his perception that this is how audiences treat him; that they establish a dichotomy that he’s not interested in, one between “conscious” and “gangsta”, between words and music, between important and fun.
On Prisoner of Conscious Kweli once again is working against that way of thinking by adopting unlikely styles, expanding his musical palette and collaborating with folks that people might not expect him to. Over half of the tracks have a featured guest. The songs that don’t have one generally seem like linking songs – either particularly small stories/scenes or bursts of rhyming that act as a motivational force, to give the album moving. There’s “Human Mic”, for example, where he raps fast over what’s become a common opening tactic on hip-hop albums: would-be movie score music (“symphony-hall shit”, Kweli calls it). He declares he’s an “advocate for artists regardless / ‘cause I got faith in us.” That’s a window into where he’s coming from with all the guest stars, but also representational of his general taste for songs about forward and upward motion.
On the songs with guests, Kweli is sometimes finding his own space within other people’s styles, as on “Come Here”, featuring Miguel. Other times he’s having fun showing off his fellow MCs, like on “High Life” featuring Rubix Cube and Bajah of the Dry Eye Crew, a song with a jazz-related dance feeling not unlike some of the dancier numbers on 2010’s Revolutions Per Minute (one of his two collaborative albums with Hi-Tek, as Reflection Eternal). On “Push Thru” with Curren$y and Kendrick Lamar, Kweli is building with two currently hot MCs on a track with a slightly different feeling for all of them, with a vaguely alternative-rock chorus.
Often he’s working with musicians he loves, doing something different. The deepest parts of the album go that route. There’s “Rocket Ships”, where Kweli and Busta Rhymes get to puff their chests up over a wicked RZA groove of crazy drums and horns. Another highlight is “Favela Love”, a six-minute-long ballad where he lets Seu Jorge sing for a substantial amount of the time. It’s a love song when Kweli’s rapping that’s also a song about place, as Jorge sings about his native Brazil. It puts an insider/outsider perspective on love and place, while just plain sounding interesting. Kweli repeats the line “Man I fell in love” in a way that emulates speechlessness, a neat emotional trick for a song with a lot of emotional singing on it. At the same time, while Jorge’s singing is moody and powerful, there’s also a stretch where Kweli’s rhyming hard over jazzy guitar that just about bests it.
One of Kweli’s grand themes is his love of music, period. You hear it when he hypes up his guests while they’re performing, like the part of “High Life” where he proclaims he’s “loving this damn track / loving the hand claps.” You hear it on “Turnt Up” where the song starts with a recognizable Eric B and Rakim beat and then he alludes to their lyrics too, in celebration of classic hip-hop. “Before He Walked”, featuring Nelly and singer Abby Dobson, is explicitly about love of music. After Kweli talks about the urgency he feels all of the time and Dobson sings of “my joy / my heart / my music,” Nelly starts off serious and passionate – “I’m from a small city / but I had big dreams / had some good ideas / but I had better schemes.” His verse traverses death, birth and the ways music can be a personal savior. Kweli sounds just as driven, his main message being a central one for the album – “music is emotion / that’s lost on the intellectuals.” Also – “we listen to the same songs / but we hear ‘em different.”
What Kweli hears himself doing is often at odds with what he thinks other people hear him doing. In the press materials for this album he refers to himself as a “connector”, and making connections between musicians and styles has been at the heart of his music for most of his career. He’s defensive about it, but doesn’t let that limit him from pushing forward. He’s an optimist, one who has made a lot of songs about moving forward and keeping your head above water (see “Get By”, “I Try”, etc.) At the same time, what these real or hypothetical fans who want him to remain “conscious” are reacting to is how many powerful, poetic songs he’s made about the problems of the world, the struggles of humankind. There’s a struggle between pessimism about the world and optimism for it running throughout his work.
At the album’s end, the J Cole-produced “It Only Gets Better”, featuring singer Marsha Ambrosius, sums that struggle up. It’s a song about adjusting your attitude, sung/rapped in a softer voice for Kweli over a double-time beat. Yet it’s also the place on the album where he throws in the most cold facts and pointed questions about where we’re headed as a society. To wit: “People of color 25 percent more likely than whites to face prison / but just because the President is Black / there’s no more racism?” He then states that his intention with observations like that is to let them motivate you, not overwhelm you; “don’t let it overtake you.” That might be the key to this supposed split running through his music. For Kweli, protest songs, love songs, dance tracks, bragging and boasting and rhyming for rhyming’s sake are all part of the same action, an emotional engagement with the world through music; a step forward. The world is depressing, yes, so let’s keep moving. Building. Growing. Connecting.