Known for his scholarly swag since day one, Talib Kweli has been churning out thinking-man’s raps since first emerging with Mos Def as Black Star on backpack rap powerhouse Rawkus Records in the 1990s. The Brooklynite spit progressive rhymes to great acclaim and has never wavered from spreading positivity, pairing Afrocentric messages with his machine-gun-quick delivery as expected from an emcee’s emcee. Yet, even during his major label tenure – which is over now – and with the memorable reference in Jay-Z’s “Moment of Clarity,” Kweli always teetered between mainstream and underground.
Presumably, that’s the concept of Kweli’s fifth studio album Prisoner of Conscious, which, almost comically, has been erroneously referred to as Prisoner of Consciousness by various media outlets. The album in one sense lives up to its name, but on most accounts, it’s a smattering of tracks that will get lost in Kweli’s considerable catalogue. Most of the tracks on PoC fall into one of two kinds of rap: flexin’ and songs about women. Warming up with the Oh No-produced “Human Mic,” Kweli segues into “Turnt Up,” produced by Trend of L.A.-based production team League of Starz best known for “function music” of rapper Problem. Interestingly, it’s a rework of Eric B and Rakim’s “Paid In Full” and finds Kweli hammering through verses without a particular topic. As far as flexin’ records go, it’s decent.
The most commercially viable song on Prisoner of Conscious is without a doubt “Come Here.” Ironically, Tab Kweli’s verses are an afterthought to production duo Sean C and LV’s (who produced most of Jay-Z’s American Gangster album) soulful instro and Miguel’s chorus. The generic love raps from Kweli are less than standout, only somewhat redeemed when he switches up his delivery on the second verse. Still, with lines such as “my style is colder than Minnesota” and “we can do it like Barack and Michelle, give me a fist bump,” Kweli treads into corny territory.
The Melanie Fiona-assisted “Ready, Set, Go” is in the same vein as “Come Here,” although the instrumental by Saadiq Bolden & Brandon West is more choppy and sounds like it samples Knight Rider theme music. It is vintage Kweli, oozing positivity with an anthemic get-up-and-go message that could be a welcome addition to an iPod playlist for the gym. The exact opposite is “Push Thru,” a brooding, soul-searching track featuring Curren$y, Kendrick Lamar and Glen Reynolds. As expected, Lamar delivers memorable lines, making Kweli and Curren$y’s seem all too pedestrian. On “Hamster Wheel,” one of the album’s lows, Kweli chastises an unknown woman about her behavior but comes across as preachy. One of the album’s standout songs is the RZA-produced “Rocket Ships,” which suits Kweli’s voice perfectly and features a solid verse from Busta Rhymes.
As difficult as it is to bash a beacon of light among a generation of dumbed-down rappers, Prisoner of Conscious is simply underwhelming for an artist of Kweli’s stature. This album will make longtime fans yearn for a reunion with Hi-Tek when a song such as “Before He Walked” featuring Nelly and a church-like chorus from Abby Dobson sounds eerily similar to Hi-Tek’s “Music for Life.” It seems for every solid song, there’s one that falls short in some aspect. All said, Talib Kweli proves less prisoner of conscious than prisoner of inconsistency.