With his first album of 2013, May’s Prisoner Of Conscious, Talib Kweli indecisively attempted to reconcile his place in the hip-hop zeitgeist—a tall order considering that Kweli’s dense webs of internal rhymes and street-level social activism exists in a world where Rich Homie Quan’s “Type Of Way” inches ever closer to 22 million YouTube views. Regardless, the forefather of “conscious rap” enlisted a handful of mainstream-friendly collaborators (Nelly, Miguel, Curren$y, Kendrick Lamar) and genre-hopped across a collection of scattershot beats ranging from American Gangster-era Jay Z (“Come Here”), the futuristic R&B that seems to be ubiquitous these days (“Ready Set Go”), and a listless stab at hedonistic trap (“Upper Echelon”).
But for the most part, Kweli didn’t drastically change his approach to lyrics or production on Prisoner Of Conscious, instead opting to make small alterations to his usual hooks and beats in order to gain the attention of a new audience, all the while staying pretty close to his comfort zone. And considering it topped out at about 14,000 albums sold, with no single breaking the 500,000 mark for YouTube views, it appears as if the returns on his foggy attempt to inch toward the mainstream were minimal.
Kweli got to work on his second album of 2013, Gravitas, mere weeks after Prisoner’s release, determined to make an extremely quick course correction after a brief, hesitant flirtation with Hot 100 hip-hop. Gravitas promised a smaller, more personal exploration of Kweli’s travels through the rap game—a narrative that, according to his press materials, had never been heard before. This would theoretically allow him to recharge and refocus, providing listeners a peek into the headspace of an historically revered MC who’s approaching middle age (he turned 38 in October) and battling to stay relevant in a rap game that seems to be hurtling in a million different directions.
But, like The Beautiful Struggle and Eardrum before it, Gravitas finds Kweli doggedly mining lyrical and sonic ground similar to what can be found on his classics Quality and Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star, grasping at compelling combinations of occasionally socially aware but guarded street-sharp rhymes over busy, percussive beats littered with refracted ’70s heroin-soul samples. It’s an extremely competent, energetic record that nonetheless feels like a photocopy of a great Talib Kweli record, one that loses the script on the emotional soul-baring that was originally promised.
That’s not necessarily the worst thing for a quickly made, transitional album that’s essentially a palate cleanser, especially considering Gravitas features a handful of tracks that stand up well, where Kweli and his collaborators are dialed in, going extremely hard over classic backpack beats, emotional nuance be damned. Jet-black banger “Demonology” rides the hell out of a particularly druggy guitar ring, while the Southern syrup of Big K.R.I.T.’s flow meshes impressively with Kweli’s nasal, quick-spitting East Coast lyricism.
Raekwon stops by on “Violations” to switch-hit bars with a bug-eyed Kweli and winds up laying waste to the hi-hat-smashing beat. And the staccato, gunshot drums, fluttering woodwinds, and strings of “Art Imitates Life,” produced by Kweli’s frequent collaborator Oh No, is almost unrelenting in its euphoria, lending even more energy to Black Thought’s crushingly cool verse (“Let’s toast to paid mortgages, lasting marriages / Living long, making my kids heirs and heiresses / The family crest, the legacy, the heritage”). In the end, the uneven, occasionally locked-in Gravitas finds Talib Kweli energetically exercising his artistry free of any agenda but his own, and hopefully positioning him for a true return to form next time around.