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Emcee’s endangered species like manatees: A review of Talib Kweli’s “Gutter Rainbows”

Talib Kweli dropped a new disc. I love Kweli, but I wasn’t expecting much, y’know? He’s one of those artists I know I enjoy more intellectually than actually (that’s basically how I feel about all conscious rap, ‘cept Common, he’s the shit.) And I’ve been taking this Hip-Hop class this semester so I’ve been trying to change the way I look at music (and texts, and comics – it’s really, it’s this whole big thing I’m dealing with in regards to aesthetic shifts. Ignore my rambling)

So I did something while listening to this album I’ve never really done before, something Trev told me he does that I thought seemed kind of excessive, but decided to try anyway: I read the lyrics to the songs on the album as I listened to them.

Here’s how that made me feel:

Pretty pissed.

The thing I’ve always respected, if not always enjoyed, about rappers like Talib Kweli is that their lyrical content trumps all other aspects of the music, but that’s not really the case here. The production on this album is on point (I’d say amazing, actually) and Talib’s flow is shaky at it’s worst (but hits sure footing by the end of the disc) it’s just that…it’s just underneath all of that, when you actually look at the words he’s saying, he’s not saying shit.

It’s all the same old, tired and cliched “I do this for the people” “My rhymes are so tight they don’t promote me” “I may not be that rich but I’m still a better rapper than you” etc, etc, et. al repeat for 47 god damn minutes. If I were going to psychoanalyze Talib based on this album I’d almost say that he was trying to defend whatever small corner of rap music he still he thinks he dominates. He’s making rap music on the defensive.

I think that right there might be the defining quality of “old man rap” which Jay-Z has been taking mainstream and I think Talib has just fallen into. It doesn’t display a lack or loss of skill, but rather a lack of confidence in one’s status in the rap world.

That’s not to say the entire album is a waste of time. “Tater Tot” is a great song that works not because of any boasts Talib makes, but because he does what a lot of rappers seem afraid to do nowadays, and that’s tell a freaking story. “Uh Oh” is a banger of a track but I can’t say I really give that much of a damn about Kweli’s part on the song, it’s Jean Grae (the best female rapper alive) who really makes this song.

If you’re going to listen to the album at all, the last half is really where it’s at, but otherwise, this disc sort of just falls short of anything you’d expect from a rapper of Talib Kweli’s calibre and pedigree. The man should be hip-hop royalty, why the fuck is he stuck in a corner he seems to have put himself in? It’s perplexing.

One response

  1. Nick B.

    Dr. Illadelph–
    This was a particularly well written review–I could not agree with you more. The conflict between your intellectual vs. actual enjoyment of Kweli is spot on. Your description of his transition from sometimes to barely listen-able, happening largely on content level but certainly not assisted by the performance level–also clutch.

    I especially appreciate your mention of Jean Grae–she’s a constant example of correct attitude, especially juxtaposed with the Kwelis of the world–I wish she would get some more spin.

    Keep it up.


    January 28, 2011 at 1:58 PM

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