Most artists in any industry will slow down as they get older, take more time between albums and projects as life’s other distractions tend to take on a bigger role. Someone forgot to tell that to Talib Kweli. The Flatbush-born MC has been on a tear over the past fifteen months, dropping a highly-regarded mixtape, Attack The Block with Z-Trip last September as an appetizer for two albums in 2013, May’s Prisoner of Conscious and Gravitas, which dropped Sunday. And all this after he released two more albums and a mixtape in 2011, bringing his output to six projects in three years. It’s a lot to take in.
The thing is, Talib Kweli has a lot to say right now. Each of Gravitas‘ eleven tracks casts an eye around the room and picks up something it notices, dissecting it with the same searing attention to detail whether it be the state of the rap game or the politicization of women’s bodies. With Prisoner of Conscious, Kweli bristled at the common perception of him as a “conscious” rapper; with Gravitas, he bristled at just about everything else. And he’d like to remind you, by the way, that he’s been doing this for a while: “Almost 20 years after the release of Soundbombing / And it still sound common / I’m out and on tour with the greatest / A Tribe Called Quest And the De La’s / Opened for Jay Z and Nas / Who else could say this?” he raps on “Rare Portraits,” a quick reminder that, with arguably his greatest achievement in Mos Def And Talib Kweli Are Black Star celebrating its 15th birthday this year, there aren’t many who have done it better than him.
Album opener “Inner Monologue” is a referendum on modern-day hip-hop, an age where “Niggas don’t get rich rapping, they selling clothes or liquor” [later, on "State of Grace" he'd get more explicit: "Rhyming is a memory / The assembly line rap niggas is designed by the enemy / Stop giving them your soul, gift wrap / Prepackaged, fabricated shit rap"]. But he doesn’t condemn that way of making money by going outside the established system. “The nature of distribution is changing… which is on the one hand intimidating, and on the other, immensely liberating,” says a disembodied voice that couches the two verses and echoes Jay Z’s rationale behind his Magna Carta…Holy Grail release with Samsung earlier this year. “Nobody knows what the new rules are. So make up your own rules.”
Kweli’s always flirted around the edge of the mainstream hip-hop dance, preferring to shake hands with his friends outside the circle rather than jump in to the center of attention. He follows a similar formula here, grabbing features from Raekwon (whose verse on “Violations” is particularly excellent), Big K.R.I.T. and some punchy guitar work from Gary Clark, Jr. and sticking them on the same album as The Underachievers, Rah Digga and RES. It’s the same duality as with his two 2013 albums; Prisoner of Conscious had an iTunes release and EMI backing, while Gravitas was released exclusively through his own KweliClub website, where he’s trying to rewrite the rules of what a fanclub can be by giving each person who buys his album an account with a direct line to contact him. New rules, indeed.
One of the knocks against Kweli through the years has been that he’s somehow too lyrical, somehow too smart or seems too superior for the average hip-hop fan to soak in; that in itself is a reflection of the society that has grown up recently, where the person who shines a light on issues and tries to create change through conversation is the one cast as “strange” or just “other.” And if Kweli is not a “conscious” rapper then he’s very much one who makes an effort to stand up to society’s problems. On Gravitas, he avoids preachiness by couching his messages inside storylines where they can be more easily digested, a practice most obvious on some of the album’s best songs (“State of Grace,” “Demonology”) while mixing in a healthy dose of straight facts (“The Wormhole” and “Rare Portraits”) to support his narratives. He may still be too lyrical for some, but for many his Gravitas will be a welcome change from hip-hop’s current norm.—Dan Rys