For their first effort in almost a decade’s time, hip-hop supergroup Reflection Eternal (that’s MC with the mostest Talib Kweli and super producer extraordinaire Hi-Tek) decided to put together something of a concept album. There’s no costumes or weird characters; instead, Revolutions Per Minute can best be described as an album dealing with the permutations of revolutions. In other words, “Oh, the wonderful world we have sewn for ourselves with our bankrupt economy and Twitter accounts.” While it’s a lofty goal nonetheless, the album has its moments of sheer musical revolutionary and others where they should’ve never dropped the needle.
Beyond the overarching album concept, the point of the album is that you take Kweli and his counter-mainstream flows and put them together with the intricacy of Hi-Tek’s behind-the-board skills. The problem is that it doesn’t always match up so well. It’s not that the production work is bad; it’s solid, with small variances throughout while maintaining a level of consistency, and with the right amount of catchiness. But the production value seems to be so minimal, specifically in the first few tracks, that things don’t connect like they should. “Midnight Hour”, even with the sexy satin tinge of Estelle, sounds like any ’60s-sampling hip-hop track from circa 2004. “Just Begun” has a beat that is like bad smooth jazz on a loop and that burns and eats its way into your brain. Want to know what Mos Def was saying by the final verse? Me too. But Hi-Tek isn’t simply to blame. Kweli is a veteran of the game, and with that said, the lack of variances in his flow can be a hindrance. In the most basic sense, Hi-Tek seems to be a big fan of heavy rhythms on loop. “In The Red” and “So Good” work well because there’s more playfulness in Kweli’s delivery, more shifts in tone and the way in which he delivers the lines, in order to brilliantly counter his partner’s often monotonous style.
But the tracks that work the best are the ones that find that happy middle ground between interesting production and showing off the flow of Kweli. “Strangers (Paranoid)” and “Got Work” are worthy of some marathon head-nodding in that they tow the ever-important line between being something of straight sonic flash and something with substance that deserves to shine. Even then some of the album’s better selections stem not from the dynamic between Kweli and Hi-Tek, but rather from their guests. “Midnight Hour” fails because there’s nothing interesting from utilizing Estelle; “Get Loose”, which features Chester French, is, if nothing else, interesting. Estelle was in her comfort zone of sorts, while bringing in this pop-dance version of The Zombies creates a song that is nostalgic in the best kind of way: dirty and rhythmic, like from a seedy club on the wrong side of Pasadena. That and you have Bun B rapping about AIG in the aforementioned “Strangers (Paranoid)” and sometimes you can see the value of having a diverse group of friends.
Because its successes and failures correspond near perfectly with the successes and failures of the album as a whole, we come to the album’s concept at last. While Kweli is notorious for his social awareness and conscientious rhymes, much of the success in the album doesn’t come in the form of crazed rants about technology and the inadequacies of modern man (the end of “Get Loose”). Instead, it’s the light touch, like the balance that’s struck between telling a compelling story of a simple charcater and critiques against the world at large in “My Life (Outro)”, where the whole concept shines the brightest. But in much of the album, the record has found itself simply skipping.