Talib Kweli had an axe to grind in 2013. The veteran Brooklyn emcee released his fifth solo LP, Prisoner of Conscious, in May and followed it up with Gravitas a short seven months later. These respective albums reflect Kweli’s challenges with adapting his craft and determining his place among the Kendrick Lamars, J. Coles, Rick Rosses, Drakes and Kanye Wests of today’s hectic hip-hop landscape.
It’s hard to age gracefully in hip-hop, an industry which expects that its artists will both adapt to its ever-changing zeitgeist and stay in their respective lanes. True, there are some who have succeeded admirably in resisting this inevitable aging by tweaking their formulas, but so often attempts to do so are counter-productive. Common’s Universal Mind Control is an unfortunate example of this, and so is Prisoner of Conscious–it’s challenging for the “Godfather of conscious rap” to populate a record with songs like “Turnt Up” without them coming off as heavy-handed, outmoded and inauthentic.
And even with all of the crippling stigma associated with “conscious rap“–that it’s too lyrical for its own good, that it takes itself too seriously, that it can never attain universal levels of popularity–it’s refreshing to see artists make music under their own terms. Common followed the uninspired, needlessly graphic Universal Mind Control with The Dreamer/The Believer, a substantially stronger album. Similarly, while Prisoner of Conscious erred by pandering to a wider mainstream audience, Gravitas rewards the fans that have adored Kweli since his beginnings with Mood and Mos Def. “If you’re not just somebody that knows me from ‘Get By‘, this one [Gravitas] is for you”, Kweli says.
Gravitas finds Talib Kweli regaining control over the marketing, packaging and creative direction of his music. He created #KweliClub to take ownership of his album’s distribution, cutting out the middleman entirely and thus allowing fans to purchase the album directly from him, bridging the gap between artist and listener. “Most people are only worried about sales figures and sales volume. I am worried about you – the people whose money make my dream possible”, Kweli writes.
You’ll be rewarded–Gravitas is Kweli’s most compelling release since 2007’s Eardrum. In many ways–lyrically, sonically, the subject matter he explores–it is an album full of throwbacks, poaching moments from The Beautiful Struggle and his first solo LP, the widely-celebrated Quality. There’s so much to celebrate about this; most importantly Kweli reaches for the standard of lyricism of underground classics Quality and Reflection Eternal. On “Art Imitates Life“, Kweli and Black Thought appear together on an LP for the first time since “Guerilla Monsoon Rap” during the heyday of Rawkus Records, with both delivering best-in-show verses. The Khrysis-produced, Neil Gaiman-sampling “Inner Monologue” serves as both a terrific mission statement for Kweli’s experiment in distribution and a euphoric announcement of artistic freedom. “The Wormhole“, a spirited and subversive diatribe about the prevalence of Illuminati conspiracy theories in hip-hop, showcases Kweli’s well-known political efficacy and his fierce disdain for oppressive power structures in a new and exciting way.
But sometimes Gravitas also feels recycled, as if the latest iteration of Kweli is an amalgamation of several previous Kwelis. There’s fast-paced-rock-music-Kweli (“Demonology”), sappy-romantic-love-song-Kweli (“Colors of You“) and why-don’t-women-love-hip-hop-anymore-Kweli (“State of Grace”), which is an undeniably compelling and heartfelt iteration but a reused one nonetheless. “Demonology” ruins a fantastic Big K.R.I.T. meditation on spirituality with its racing blues guitar and reverberating snares, though this is probably the album’s only glaring production issue. The sequencing is a bit off, too, and Gravitas sputters to a halt as the final two tracks happen to be the record’s only two “love songs”.
Gravitas is Talib Kweli’s best record in seven years. It may not feel new, but it does feel honest, and an album full of honest music is something to be proud of.