An instrumentally smooth but fiercely focused fifth LP from the Brooklyn rapper.
Lewis G. Parker 2011-01-27
When he spoke of the need for "less misogyny, less curses; let’s put more depth in our verses," in 2007, Talib Kweli’s approach to rap seemed to clang with the attitude of the A-list boasters who fronted the genre. But the Brooklyn rapper who broke out on Rawkus Records with his Mos Def collaboration, Black Star, in 1998, continues to release upbeat, reflective albums that draw sighs of modesty from critics and the game’s most shameless braggers alike.
On Gutter Rainbows, Kweli has assembled producers who gloss the vocals with even more of the 70s soul, disco and jazz samples that worked so well on his previous 20-track opus, 2007’s Eardrum. Gutter Rainbows could only be smoother if it came with a signed photo of the artist propping up a Las Vegas cocktail bar in a white tuxedo. But the sheen rubs off on the three penultimate tracks, and after so much honey it feels good to hear Kweli and his regular collaborator Jean Grae’s verses (on Uh Oh, which features some killer church organ) given something that sounds less like a lounge-jazz track to work with. This is especially true of Tater Tot, a bleak narrative tale of an army veteran’s struggle to readapt to civilian life, where the storytelling finally trumps the backing track.
As always, Kweli’s diary-like ruminations have messages that inspire rather than enrage. He speaks of giving a "voice for the voiceless, hope for the hopeless," without preaching. He raps about the hip hop game, but doesn’t resort to petty name-calling. And he speaks intelligently of fame and celebrity from his own experience without glamorising. The only negative criticism of the lyrics – and this is an odd thing to say, given the dumbness of so many contemporary rap songs – is that Kweli tries to cram too much awareness into his lines at the expense of rhymes and flow. But trying a little too hard to find enlightenment can be forgiven when it comes from within a genre that often tips bravado ahead of insight.