Release Date: May 7, 2013
Record label: 3D
Genre(s): Rap, Underground Rap, East Coast Rap
The title of Talib Kweli's sixth album is a neat semantic trick. It hints at political imprisonment, but Kweli's real beef is with the shopworn label “conscious,” as in “conscious rap,” or “socially conscious rap,” a tag bestowed often without much conscious thought on any hip-hop artist whose lyrics aren't purely about drugs. To Kweli, that taxonomical style of listening is a craven way for fans to claim taste as virtue.
If you know Talib Kweli—the socially minded Brooklyn emcee recognized more for his vocal abilities than his CD sales—then Prisoner of Conscious is a gimme. If you don’t know the enormously gifted Kweli, his first solo record in three years is a tougher sell. There’s a laundry list of cameos and prodigious lyricism, but the songs rarely move.
P.O.S. :: Chill, dummyDoomtree RecordsAuthor: Patrick TaylorI've been a fan of Stefon "P.O.S." Alexander since his debut nearly 10 years ago. On "Audition" and 2009's "Never Better," he proved himself to be one of the few artists who could successfully meld punk rock and hip-hop. Fellow Minnesotans ….
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.
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$y, Nelly, and Seu Jorge — and to select some incongruous beats for a Brooklynite approaching 40, like the hyphy-aping single “Upper Echelon” (on which Talib sounds surprisingly comfortable for a Brooklynite approaching 40).
If Brooklyn rapper Talib Kweli really is a Prisoner of Conscious, as the title to his 2013 album suggests, then of course radio-aimed crossover numbers are the proper way to make a jailbreak, so bring on T-Pain and Weezy and start climbing those charts. Actually, T-Pain isn't here and the literate MC's collaboration with Lil Wayne remains stuck on Kweli's great Attack the Block mixtape, but this casual stroll into the mainstream does feature Nelly on the "Music is a part of me" song "Before He Walked" ("You download it for free, but what I create is sacred/It cost you nothing but I pay to make it") while Miguel shows up on "Come Here," one of the most artistic and art-filled hip-hop come-ons on wax ("She rock a fella center like Diego in the lobby/As valuable as The Scream or Salvador Dali"). Radio regulars Curren$y and Kendrick Lamar appear on the rather loose "Push Thru," but the most valuable guest stars are Seu Jorge for his work on the Brazilian-flavored "Favela Love" ("Pow! That's the sound like onomatopoeia/Got me floating when you rocking my boat like Aaliyah") and Busta Rhymes, who brings some gruff, comic relief to the wicked "Rocket Ships.
Talib Kweli has earned a reputation over his nearly 20 years in the hip-hop business for being an artist who cares about the bigger issues. Labelled as a ‘conscious rapper’ – effectively meaning he rhymes about the bigger picture rather than the often cited crude sex and violent themes of more commercial gansta rap – he has always been more likely to be penning lyrics about political prisoners than about riding around in escalades, or about civil rights issues rather than accessing the VIP area. It has been a label he has never been wholly comfortable with, mainly because he hates the labeling that goes on in the music business and the title of this, his sixth solo album, is an a straight up dig at those who have tried to pigeonhole him.
Read deliberately, Prisoner of Conscious isn’t that much less provocative a title in 2013 than Nas' Hip Hop Is Dead was in 2006. We're now a little more than three years removed from Waka's infamous "I'm not into being lyrical" comments, and about two and a half on from Flockaveli, a willfully boneheaded album approaching classic status these days. Talib Kweli, then, isn't cut out for these times.
Talib Kweli has gained and maintained steady popularity in part due to his being labeled a “conscious rapper” or for making thought-provoking Hip Hop. While he’s no stranger to the more rugged, underground scene, he’s also displayed both versatility and accessibility through collaborations with the likes of DJ Quik, Kanye West and Gucci Mane. It’s always dangerous to guess why any emcee chooses a particular course of action, but some of these attempts at least appear to be made with the intention of shaking the dreaded conscious label that has followed Kweli since his Rawkus days.
DEMI LOVATO “Demi” (Hollywood) Aggrievedness suits Demi Lovato well; always has. In her Disney days, she was — relatively speaking — the hellion of the crew, interested in abraded rock, tough-girl postures and smiles that cracked to reveal sneers. Her years since teen-idol days have been chaotic: some great music and some not-so-great music, public struggles with bulimia and cutting, and in her latest phase, a role as empowerer in chief on the judging panel of “The X Factor.” Compared to the near-catatonic Britney Spears, Ms.
Talib Kweli is truly a “conscious rapper” in every sense of the phrase, so it’s not surprising that he’d eventually come to view that label as a restriction. The 37-year-old rapper’s long awaited fifth studio album, Prisoner Of Conscious, is undoubtably an opportunity for Kweli to wrestle with his own legacy and do battle with his detractors. Although the record has a combative spirit that spits in the face of the critics that have tried to define Kweli and place him in a box, he doesn’t stray away from what he’s become known for: political, lyrically precise rap music.