As a leading exponent of socially conscious rap Talib Kweli has long stood for integrity and responsibility, and also for a kind of moralistic grousing; there’s a reason some other rappers have taken pains to reject the conscious label. (“Don’t view me as no conscious cat, this ain’t no conscious rap,” ASAP Rocky recently disclaimed.) So this album’s title rings with self-awareness.
He doesn’t retreat from his position here, though he’s evidently trying not to be a killjoy. On Upper Echelon he reels off boasts over a tough, synthetic beat. Rocket Ships, an RZA production that sets the album’s high-water mark, gives him a more soulful backdrop, and a worthy sparring partner in Busta Rhymes, his motormouthed peer. Before He Walked, produced by E. Jones of the Soul Council, has him trading urgent testimonials with an energetic Nelly. And Come Here unfurls as a coolly blatant Marvin Gaye seduction ritual, with help from Miguel and a bit of orgasmic wordplay.
At the heart of all is Talib Kweli’s impressively nimble rapping, with its rat-a-tat cadence and intricate rhyme-play. During his verse on Push Thru, which also has strong work by Kendrick Lamar and Currensy, he aims to set himself apart from the rap mainstream:
I beautifully exude the vibe that’s free of ambiguity
Your goonery for the sake of goonery
Is cartoons to me
It’s coonery, it’s lunacy
But this album also falls prey to facile cosmopolitanism, evoking Afrobeat on High Life (with Rubix and Bajah) and Brazilian pop on Favela Love (with Seu Jorge). And while a pair of adjacent tracks addresses women’s struggles — first from a vantage of pitiful judgment (Hamster Wheel) and then from one of wonderment (Delicate Flowers) — Talib Kweli has covered this ground before, better than this. This can’t be his endgame, unless he’s content to keep preaching to the choir.
And as with that Occupy Wall Street pronouncement, his flickers of sociopolitical purpose form a kind of feedback loop. “This is the end game” makes for a good exhortation, but it doesn’t actually leave much room for progress.
— Nate Chinen