Thinking back to around 1999 when Talib Kweli was signed to Rawkus Records and starting to get a buzz as 1/2 of the group Blackstar (partnered with Mos Def), rap music was starting to go in a different direction in terms of what held listeners’ attention. New York was still on top of the Hip-Hop scene, but as most of us can remember, the South was on the rise. The stigma a lot of Southern rap carried was that it was very materialistic and very little of it was refined or fastidious. There was so much of it, though, that the rappers that still had “something to say” in the way of politics, liberation, respect for women, etc were placed in a box. These guys and gals reluctantly took the role of “conscious rappers”.
In Talib’s latest effort, ‘Prisoner of Conscious,’ he fully owns this label (after trying to shed it, or at least prove his versatility in the past). Where his past albums were in a bit of protest of the conscious label at times, ‘Prisoner of Conscious’ is Talib Kweli wearing the label proudly while dealing with the grocery list of current societal ills going on today…with a twist. It seems to me that while Talib is comfortable being the conscious emcee, he changed some other factors to keep this effort from being a one-trick pony. This prisoner is sneaking nail files in the cell through birthday cakes and such.
One thing I want to praise straightaway about this album is it’s production. For anyone who may question the entertainment value the son of an English professor can provide (though I don’t know why you’d be doing that…Kanye West, anyone?), this album is filled with soulful and lively tracks accompanying Talib’s rapid-fire delivery. The producers contributing to ‘Prisoner of Conscious’ include DJ Oh No (you know, the producer whose name happens to be Michael Jackson), J. Cole, RZA, Terrace Martin, and S1, among others. Perhaps even more interesting than that are the featured rappers/vocalists. While nothing as wild as the time Talib joined Gucci Mane on a song (thank goodness), the help enlisted on this album includes a fair share of artists that haven’t come close to being pinned with the “conscious” label. You got Busta Rhymes, Curren$y, Kendrick Lamar, and Nelly, who I haven’t heard from in a while…because I’ve been avoiding him. He, like all these other inclusions outside of Kweli, provides the variety to keep this album fun while you receive your education.
So on the grocery list of societal ills tackled here, we have included a plea for women to know their self-worth: “She always carrying a baby with her. Her spitting image just like looking at her baby pictures. Afraid to say cause she dependent on men for real/ How she running these streets, but always standing still?” in the song “Hamster Wheel”; and the need for Revolution: “Bleeding in the streets as we breathe the pollution/ They’re saying that we need a revolution, but their passion is reduced to all caps on a computer” in the single “Rocket Ships.” Lyrically, Talib Kweli is as strong as he’s ever been. His take on a wealth of different topics is something I’ve always been impressed by. There’s really only one song I could do without (Before He Walked…featuring Nelly), but it’s not a painful experience in the slightest to listen to this album all the way through in a sitting. That being said, this one belongs in your collection if you’ve enjoyed any of his previous works. This prisoner has fluffed his pillow and made himself at home. You wanna come see him during visiting hours with this one.