Beats & Rhymes: Talib Kweli’s Gutter Rainbows

Each Monday, Beats & Rhymes highlights a new and notable hip-hop, rap, DJ, or electronic record that embraces independent sensibilities.

Talib Kweli: Gutter RainbowsTalib Kweli: Gutter Rainbows (Javotti Media, 1/25/11)

Talib Kweli: “Cold Rain”

[audio:|titles=Talib Kweli: “Cold Rain”]

There’s a certain sternness to Talib Kweli‘s rapping. It’s a constant in his music, and it makes you listen a little harder to differentiate where he’s going from song to song. He tends to give his work an intimidating surface, though at heart it’s accessible, unrestful, richly stimulating hip-hop, fiery in spirit and not prone to corny messages. Since the 1998 collaboration Mos Def and Talib Kweli are Black Star, he’s delivered his words with a bold shove forward.

Kweli doesn’t sound humbled or chastened on the new Gutter Rainbows, nor does the bass line that smoothly slams the bolts home on the title track. He says in the liner notes that “this is my second album (after Liberation) that the music industry did not help me create.” This fact cuts both ways. There’s a different producer on nearly every track, but nearly all of them (from M-Phazes to Oh No to Ski Beatz) somehow connect back to the warm instrumentation (flute, guitar, swirly soul vocals) of 88-Keys‘ intro track, “After The Rain.” It’s a busy and collaborative 14 tracks, but thoroughly solid.

Even the straight-up boastful moments on Gutter Rainbows feel earned through the fast gathering of words, the way the syllables click against each other as Kweli stuffs them into a line. Producer Khrysis builds “I’m On One” from the kind of group-vocal “oh-oh!” sample that makes you think that a rapper has a bunch of drunken buddies falling off a boat in the background. Meanwhile, Kweli uses the song to simply assert his hip-hop dominance — when he’s cocky, he just sounds, well, cocky — but it’s still pretty funny when he says, “I’ll eat you after dark like this was Ramadan.”

On a similar tack, “Mr. International” tells you that you might be jealous because the only place you’ve every traveled is Upstate, and “don’t get mad ’cause I’m writing this rhyme on my iPad.” Kweli rarely tends to put an arrogant chuckle behind his flow, so these moments of humor are unexpected and easy to miss if you’re not following the words closely.

Still, the best moments happen when Kweli is confessing to just being human. “So Low” sticks to the plan of tough-shit uplift, but it shows that he’s comfortable in letting shades of sadness between the bursts of determination. (He also leaves the album on a similar note, with “Self Savior.”) “Wait For You” is where the album’s reflective soul and spirited flows come perfectly into balance, over S1 and Jarriell Carter‘s horn arrangements and keys. Kweli hits that balance again on “Cold Rain,” which is pretty much the best thing on the record. Ski Beatz wrangles a great syncopated chord progression that splashes up over Kweli’s punchy verse lines.

Yet the album is not all boastful Kweli vs. vulnerable Kweli, and it doesn’t lack nuanced themes. “Tater Tot” begins inside the head of a war veteran coming home confused and resentful, and it soon veers into an almost Ghostface Killah-style real-crime tale before slamming to an uncertain stop. (The title is a nickname that the vet gives his new diner-waitress lover.  Is anyone else reminded of Doug E. Fresh calling a deadbeat boyfriend a “Chicken McNugget” on his song “Cut That Zero”?)

On the whole, Gutter Rainbows does seem to put aside just a tiny bit of the grandeur that Kweli’s previously had, in a way that’s hard to qualify, but perhaps that’s just focus and consistency doing its job. It’s nothing to read too much into; it’s not a big change of vision or persona.  It’s not Kweli’s peak, but it’s worthy of him and of the seemingly boundless variety of hip hop. Kweli has more often than not exceeded expectations, so take Gutter Rainbows for the lively, coherent piece of work that it is.

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