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Talib Kweli: Gutter Rainbows
Jay-Z once rapped 'If skills sold/ Truth be told/ I’d probably be lyrically/ Talib Kweli.' Praise from Caesar indeed. It’s always a breath of fresh air when Kweli releases any new record.
There are so many things unfortunate about the term ‘conscious hip-hop’, yet his brand of indie intellectualism has always set him apart in a field that every year becomes more and more saturated. The man quoted as being Kanye West’s favourite rapper has never really lived up to his collaborations with Mos Def in 1998 as Blackstar, and with Hi-Tek as Reflection Internal in 2000, but the genre always makes space for him.
The first half of Gutter Rainbows is still living on the type of power soul and funk samples that gave his last album Eardrum its sound. It’s pretty routine stuff until six songs in ’I’m On One’ takes the tone to a dark-cellar rap battle. ‘Uh Oh’ and ‘Tater Tot’, in which he sounds eerily like Nas, echo the same sentiment, while ‘Friends and Family’ is an upbeat dedication to the 35-year-old’s industry friends, heroes and influences.
Don’t look for catchy hooks or anything you can dance to on Gutter Rainbows. It’s not for lack of trying, but such misguided attempts in the production don’t land. As per usual for Kweli’s work, it’s words; not sounds that drive the record.
This is a solid release, but it’s also a critical crossroad for Kweli. He’s stuck between mainstream stardom and the indie-hop that he has made his own and mainstream stardom. Whether he could even make the transition into the latter is another question altogether. Yes, it has its share of clichés and caricatures, but hip-hop is a deceptively fluid and adaptable genre.
However, even the best music begins to sound dated just a few years after its release. Unfortunately for Kweli, he is so grounded in such a specific brand of hip-hop that he suffers from this more than most. Similarly conscious peers Mos Def and Common have worked hard in striking the balance, but it really is true that you can’t teach an old dawg new tricks. He could always do a track with Nicki Minaj, though.
Album opener ‘San Angeles’ will get feet moving and booties shaking, but the rest of the album is decidedly more post-rock oriented. The influences of Pink Floyd only really make a grand appearance on psychedelic tune ‘Lunar Drift’, with its spooky synths and echoing bass line.
‘The Eliminator’ takes the listener back to the eighties again, as the repetitive electronic beat that is used sounds a lot like the 8-bit sounds that were the backdrop for many early eighties video games. Imagine the aforementioned desert wasteland turning 8-bit coloured.
The eighties also dominate in the strummed intro to ‘Martin Rev’, evoking memories of Survivor’s ‘Eye of the Tiger’. You’d almost think the guys of Maserati had wished they were making music a few decades ago.
With no prior announcements of its making, save for a short film named “Jungle” released a few hours before it became publicly available, If You’re Reading This it’s Too Late was first released on iTunes Store, Spotify and Soundcloud, and quickly received acclaim – impressive sales figures followe.
So what’s the deal with this mixtape/album hybrid that boasts a massive 17-track track list? As a whole, it shows lyrical maturity on Drake’s side, as well as quite remarkable production. As is his usual, the Canadian singer’s fourth album blends the worlds of velvety smooth r&b and modern hip-hop.
The latter emerges in spirit on the album’s opener. ‘Legend’, in which Drizzy announces, “If I Die, I’m a Legend.” He continues on “No Tellin’”, warning “Please do not speak to me like I'm that Drake from four years ago/ I’m at a higher level.”
It’s a theme that runs through much of the album, with his often ridiculed but much loved romantic (hyper-) sensitivity offer taking a backseat somewhat. His position as a target of more hate that he probably should get drives him to unapologetically state, “I’ve got enemies//Got a lot of enemies,” over the eerie, monotonic piano chords in ‘Energy’.
Despite drifting into self-actualisation on ‘Know Yourself’, the Young Money prodigy still doesn’t go to the emotional depths fans have become accustomed to, rapping “I've always been me, I guess I know myself” and “I want that Ferrari, then I swerve” in one same breath.
With several guest collaborators appearing on the album, one of the highlights is ‘Star67’ featuring Lil Wayne; a song that sees Drake go full-on confessional, rapping about his struggle to financially support his mother, making it in the fickle industry and going from rags to riches.
He explores these subjects further on “You and the 6” – a track seemingly inspired by and dedicated to his mother: “She worry 'bout me from home//You know she raised me alone.” It’s on this song that he most harks back to what can only be described as his unique selling point – rather than gimmick – of breaking the urban music mould with a relative and digestible sense of sincerity.
Though many will argue that If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late presents little other than the familiar introspectiveness of Drake, it does go some way to prove that his musings aren’t exclusively affective in the context of chart-friendly, commercial radio. With excellent production values and a noticeably increasing lyrical maturity, this is possibly his best work to date; an album-come-mixtape that stands tall in a sea of hip-hop bravado.