Review Summary: The new grit.
"I am the most hated alive", Black Thought assures us on the dopamine-rush bar factory "State Prisoner". The evidence isn't in his favour on that one. While his contemporaries chase trends and take hiatuses, hit incredible highs at their peaks and scrape the barrel immediately after, Black Thought seems blessed (or cursed) by some higher power to rock up again every two or so years, unbelievably consistent and reliable; a bedrock the entire game can rest upon.
About the only variable in Thought's constant stream of quality is the production behind him, especially since his lifelong work with Questlove is temporarily on hold. Sean C, chosen beatsmith for Streams of Thought, Vol. 3: Cane and Abel
, initially seems a more straightforward pick than Salaam Remi or 9th Wonder. "State Prisoner" is appropriately nasty, all rumbling bass and clattering drums behind Thought's most furious bars in years, but the Pusha T- and Killer Mike-featuring "Good Morning" slips worryingly into more generic territory. Thankfully, Vol. 3
takes full advantage of its longer runtime, stretching into more places than the fairly self-contained first two volumes could. The biggest surprise here is "Nature of the Beast", an honest-to-god indie pop tune where Thought trades a pleasant baritone with The Last Artful, Dodgr over an uncharacteristically subdued Portugal. The Man. It's a cut bound to put off hardcore hip-hop heads, but which provides a lovely change of pace in the album flow. This same odd trio links back up for album highlights "Quiet Trip" and "Fuel", both of which unite the album's duelling interests in gentle pop and cutthroat rap to excellent results.
Inbetween its two extremes is when Streams of Thought, Vol. 3
begins to falter. "Good Morning" is clearly aimed straight at your Spotify hip-hop playlist, but even features from some of the biggest names in hip-hop feel phoned in next to Black Thought's diamond-sharp bars, the same issue which plagues the bizzarely ScHoolboy Q-assisted "Steak Um". The relationship-forward "We Could Be Good (United)" feels like prime real estate for Thought to get introspective, as on some of his best work, but ultimately comes off one-sided and bogged down by an awful refrain. Sean C's more anonymous beats yield nicely to the bars in powerhouse cuts "Thought vs. Everybody" and the jazzier "Magnificent", but undeniably lack the punch of previous volumes.
Thing is, though, I think hip-hop is like alchemy, and Black Thought has the right chemistry with anyone. Give him the Human Music beat from Rick & Morty
and he'd still spit a verse that'd make your head spin without ever feeling self-congratulatory, or too assured of its own greatness. Black Thought, ever as humble as his talent will allow him to be – on Malik B's passing he beautifully wrote "from day one, I always felt as if I possessed only a mere fraction of your true gift and potential" as if he's not a top 3 MC alive – is content to ride the waves of his music, building a perfect legacy piece by piece.