Review Summary: The one where Talib Kweli continues doing everything he's done before with similar results, but achieves nothing new in the process
To this day, Talib Kweli remains something of an enigma in the hip hop world. He exists in that seminal gray area that makes up the in between world of not quite mainstream and a little too well known to be underground. Despite not having his name plastered all over our screens and radios every five minutes, or courting controversy in the media in the musical off season, his name is perhaps as well known as many of his more successful peers. And that's not to say that he doesn't deserve the recognition or the attention that's come his way over the years, or that his popularity should even come as a surprise, but for someone who's name doesn't end in a zy, or dabbled in a film career to rise as high as he has while still generally considered an “alternative rapper”, is a little interesting. Now every hip hop emcee who's been hit with success at some point in their career has, at one point or another, been indebted to the sonic creativeness of a quality producer hiding out back. Every rapper worth more than a grain of salt has one in their back pocket or on the bench, waiting to be drawn out just in time for that oh so needed essential summer release. Would Snoop or Eminem have become as successful as they did without Dr. Dre in the mix? Guru wouldn't be the underground champion that he is without the support of Premier, just as Royce da 5'9” has been able to have a career post Eminem feud with those same talents. Listening to the Wu Tang Clan's 21st century output versus their acclaimed beginnings show how far they've descended without RZA pulling all the strings. The same can also be assumed of Talib; his obvious talents not withstanding, he's never been as relevant when Hi-Tek wasn't supplying the beats.
Granted Kweli's been blessed with just as much critical and commercial success when he's teamed up with the likes of Kanye and Madlib, but he's just never seemed as authentic as when he's poured his rhymes over the bedrock of a Tek rhythm. There's a reason why people get excited when the words Reflection Eternal are mentioned in the same sentence, or why Black Star is regarded as the classic it truly is. Kweli's adept at getting by without him though, as he's proven time and time again into a career well into its second decade. And Gutter Rainbows
is the simple continuation of that notion, but in saying that I have to stress that it is exactly that – the straight continuation of everything he's ever done before, and nothing more. A new Talib Kweli record means a lot of things for a lot of people, the least of which is another quality hip hop record to do the round across the decks. But there's something about Talib's recent output that's become just a little, well stale almost. Granted the initial excitement lasts well beyond the point where the constant rotations of the album has induced damage to the disc itself, but lately its simply been just more of the same. Yes, Gutter Rainbows
is another stellar entry in an already creatively fulfilling career, and no that's not a bad thing, but a little diversity wouldn't hurt anyone. A safe bet can only be interesting for so long.
For Gutter Rainbows
, Talib's called a few new players into the game to offshoot the comfortable nature he's settled into, while the old favorites return with something just a little different this time. M-Phazes keeps his retro soul pilfering cap on and opens the album up properly with his now standard larger than life compositions with the title track, before Kweli gets introspective on follow up 'So Low', dropping such fare as “I'm still flirting with death, although I'm still certain about my commitment to life, although I'm still searching
”. Kweli flirts with a fair amount of soul baring on this lp, but he lets it loose only in small bursts and select numbers, alternating between the bounce and bang, before dropping the tempo. He leaves the shaky confidence of 'So Low' behind and reasserts himself in the Sean price assisted 'Palookas'. Sounding like he's returned to his underground open mic beginnings he picks up the pieces by throwing out lines like “If you mix the king and Malcolm bet Talib will be the outcome, Album so hot my ghetto chicks bring the talcum. Whether you sing or shout it, they gave someone else the crown but I'm King without it
'Mr International' represents the first serious flaw with the album; however, there's nothing truly criminal about the S1 produced track (one of the men responsible for Kanye's 'Power'),but it just doesn't gel with the gritty nature of the the album. The same can be said for 'Ain't Waiting' – both feature Talib playing up to all of his strengths and promises but they stick out amongst the graffiti beats, like a lone flower growing in the dirt and social rubble of the album's origins. Things pick up with the Ski Beatz soul roll call 'Cold Rain', with Talib laying double time over playful piano licks and backing gospel vocals. Despite suffering from one of the more bizarre titles in hip hop, 'Tater Tot' represents the highest point of the album, with Talib telling the story of an army vet who winds up in the middle of a shoot out while in Vegas. Despite falling into storytelling fantasy, it shows Kweli at his most poetic and compelling, wrapping his story around a simple yet effective beat courtesy of Nick Speed. Jean Grae drops in on the Oh No assisted cut 'Uh Oh' and does suitable justice to Talib's flow, but it all falls a little flat going up before the sparkling jazz inspired cut, 'Self Savior' featuring Chace Infinite at his most inspiring
At the end of the day Gutter Rainbows
is more of the same for Talib Kweli. Another solid entry into his impressive solo career (even though it fails to hit the highs made by Quality
), it'll do everything it's meant to do, which is appease Talib's fervent fan base, but nothing else. Whether or not that's his intention will remain to be seen, but for a man who's flirted with the mainstream (or to be fair, watched the mainstream cast an easy eye over him) it's a little disconcerting to see Talib not pushing things just a little further. For the most part he hits everything perfectly, and the who's who of guest producers all work their magic to varying degrees, but there are little moments here and there where everything just feels a touch empty. Even Talib himself seems a little lost at times, swapping street corner poetry for self congratulatory remarks and verbal pats on the back. His push for radio dominance on 'Mr International' brutally comes off second best when coupled with the dominant output of the album as well. This isn't an album that will win him any new fans, but he's done more than an admirable job at keeping his old ones happy. But there doesn't seem to be anything higher for Talib to achievh, at least not in his current form, just a flat and steady plateau of the familiar and the recycled. Nothing that will move him into the upper echelons of hip hop stardom anyway. I guess he could always change his name to Kweezy....