15 July, 2013@7:11 pm
“Prisoner Of Conscious is a record that’s really about where I am now, and what kind of songs I want to make, versus what kind of songs people want me to make…. It’s my job as an artist to continue to challenge myself, and then, challenge my audience,” Talib Kweli told HipHopSite.Com almost two years ago to the day, in an exclusive interview. The same interview revealed that the album would include a feature from Nelly, leaving many to wonder if Kweli would finally buckle to the major label system, and create a “commercial” LP. After all, the title might suggest that he is a “prisoner” to making “conscious” hip-hop music.
The title is actually a play on the term “prisoner of conscience”, which Amnesty International refers to as anyone wrongly persecuted for their race, religion, or political views. Given recent political events we’ve seen over the past few years – both inside and outside of the U.S. – there is a poignancy to Talib’s album title, whether referring to Pussy Riot, Trayvon Martin, or Justin Carter.
However Talib’s own release from the major label prison system may have altered the direction of Prisoner Of Conscious over the past two years, as the pressure to create a “marketable” single has been lifted. The closest thing to that is his collaboration with a pre-drop-kicking Miguel, “Come Here”, which just barely missed the mark, as Miguel’s own popularity would explode shortly after the song’s release. We can only guess that radio’s pre-conceived notions of Talib held the Marvin Gaye-influenced track back, as Robin Thicke and company would employ a similar formula for their hit “Blurred Lines”. Maybe this is what Talib meant by Prisoner Of Conscious.
While Kweli’s classic LP with Hi-Tek, Reflection Eternal’s Train Of Thought, may forever remain his best album, Prisoner Of Conscious is its closest companion, and without a doubt the most mature LP of his career. There is no doubt the Occupy Movement of 2012 influenced the direction Kweli would ultimately take, something Kweli couldn’t have predicted a year earlier. The album begins with “Human Mic”, which begins with a sample of his viral YouTube moment, which found occupiers echoing his words for the rest of the crowd to hear, before leading into the track. The raw, symphonic track sets the tone for the album perfectly, as Talib Kweli lyrically destroys the track, not holding back for anyone.
The album does contain a few of these more street level moments, suggesting he’s kept his backpack in tact, especially when there’s friendly competition amongst his peers. Two of the best moments are on “Push Thru” (feat. Curren$y and Kendrick Lamar) and the RZA produced “Rocket Ships” (feat. Busta Rhymes), as everyone brings their A-game to Kweli’s cipher. “High Life” finds him sparring with Rubix over a moving, meaty Oh No beat, finishing off with a killer horn solo.
“High Life”, in fact, is a good example of the album’s aforementioned maturity, as Talib is one of the few artists to continue to produce full, organic tracks in the post-coffee shop hip-hop landscape. There’s a thoughtful subsection of this album dedicated to this sound, as songs like “Ready Set Go” (feat. Melanie Fiona), “Delicate Flowers”, and “Hamster Wheel” show respect for women, as Kweli always has.
While “Turnt Up” and “Upper Echelon” borrow breaks from Rakim and Masta Ace, and builds on top of them, there’s no real threat of Kweli dumbing down his music for the masses. It’s hard to be offended by the Miguel track as it’s done so well, and even “Before He Walked” finds Nelly trading his radio ready-style for some blues-inspired vocals, and it works.
While the album length is heavy at fifteen tracks, and could have been cut down by a few songs, Talib’s assumed attempt at making a “commercial” LP has instead taken a completely different direction, and perhaps delivered one of the most consistant albums of his career.
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