I have always had an uneasy relationship with Talib Kweli’s music. I have always very much wanted to like his stuff and when I’ve heard him on other people’s albums (like Danger Doom’s The Mouse and the Mask), I’ve enjoyed it but I don’t remember getting a lot out of his solo records. I don’t remember hating 2007’s Eardrum, but it’s telling that I don’t remember anything about that album.
But maybe 2011 will be the Year of the Pleasant Surprise. The other night, I found myself rather enjoying the new P.J. Harvey album, Let England Shake, on my first time through it. I’ve never liked P.J. Harvey before (I have in fact actively disliked her before), but Let England Shake is sounding pretty good so far. So then I decided to roll some Amazon Mp3 dice on Talib Kweli’s Gutter Rainbows, hoping it would be the album I always believed Kweli to be capable of making. If I can continue the dice metaphor, buying Gutter Rainbows is the equivalent of rolling a hard eight. Not only is it Talib Kweli’s best album by a damn sight, it’s easily the most exciting album of 2011 so far (don’t get me wrong – the new Decemberists album is good, but you don’t exactly nod your head to it while you’re on the freeway. Ditto Daniel Martin Moore’s soft and lovely In the Cool of the Day).
The first great thing about Gutter Rainbows is the general lack of skits (okay, album opener “After the Rain” is a skit, but it’s the only one and it if you start the album on track two, you won’t even know it’s there) and the second great thing about it is pretty much everything else. The beats are heavy and riddled with tinges of gospel, funk, pop and soul. I’ve always given Kweli points for being a relatively humble MC (on “Gutter Rainbows,” he even disses other MCs for their “braggadocio,” a word that I don’t believe I’ve ever heard in a hip-hop song before), but I’m glad to see a bit of a swagger to his delivery on Gutter Rainbows. He sounds fresh, energetic, and completely up to the task from start to finish.
Kweli is aided by a few quality guest appearances on Gutter Rainbows, but Jean Grae’s turn on “Uh Oh” steals the show. I’m hoping that her cameo on this album portends a new release from her sometime this year, although I haven’t heard anything to that effect. If we need to take up donations to produce a new Jean Grae album, I’ll start passing around the hat this very minute. There aren’t enough awesome women in hip-hop and we need to keep Grae around as long as possible. Though she owns “Uh Oh”, Talib gets off a pretty good couplet too: “Picturing yourself like a gangsta is the only way that you’re shooting/ And my intelligent design is the product of evolution.”
Lyrically, Kweli has never been better than he is on Gutter Rainbows. “Cold Rain” is clever and topical (“the end is upon us with a hash-tag and trending topic”) and songs like “Ain’t Waiting” and “How You Love Me” tackle the difficulties of relationships, but he cuts the shit right down to the marrow on “Self Savior”, which has the best line of the entire album: “every poor person is a nigger now.” That kind of concern for those less fortunate than he is (many are people with whom Kweli grew up) balanced with the smart humor and cultural references for which Kweli is both loved by his fans and loathed by his detractors. I’m quick to despise a reference if it seems too easy, but I don’t hear a lot of rappers saying that their lives are “like a novel by Paulo Coelho” (“Mr. International”) or name-checking Kurt Vonnegut (“I’m On One”). Kweli’s pop culture references (is Paulo Coelho “pop culture”? Let’s just assume he is) fit his songs just fine, and I’m always gonna give an MC props for being unafraid to sound like he has read a goddamn book or two in his life.
Longtime Bollocks! readers are probably tired of my constant complaining that a lot of music today seems to value style over substance (let’s face it, kids: a lot of your big money artists are downright scared of substance at this point. Check your 2011 Grammy Nominees. The Arcade Fire is the exception that proves the rule. And they won’t win), and I’m happy to report that Talib Kweli seems to intuitively understand my concern. On “Self Savior” he talks about the need to balance style and substance, finally announcing, “My style married my substance/ and now they’re livin’ in harmony.” And the line rings true – Gutter Rainbows balances the two almost perfectly. It’s musically chill enough to serve as a summer barbecue soundtrack, but Kweli’s social conscience still gets plenty of air time (“Self Savior”, remember, contains my favorite line).
Gutter Rainbows, despite its numerous producers (something like thirteen for the fourteen tracks that make up the regular edition – I got the Amazon bonus version that has the deliciously old-school “GMB”), is the most consistently satisfying album of Kweli’s career and, following Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy so closely (Kanye’s best album just dropped in November, Gutter Rainbows came almost exactly two months later), it gives me the fleeting hope that there’s move toward more musicality in hip-hop. Like My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Gutter Rainbows isn’t afraid to mix a little pop melody into the flow. I may be committing hip-hop heresy by saying so, but I think Talib Kweli probably bests Kanye West by just a little bit. 2011 has started off a little slow and quiet for my liking (I’m hoping the new Drive-By Truckers album will be the first good rock record of the year because, sadly, the new Social Distortion album isn’t) and Kweli is the first artist I’ve heard this year to really pump up the volume with a sense of humor and an awareness of what’s going on around him.