From the day Talib Kweli made his studio debut with Mos Def on 1998′s Black Star, he’s been the uncontested king of underground hip-hop. His collection of solo releases, as well as the two he did with DJ Hi-Tek under the Reflection Eternal moniker, has been equally well-received and influential.
So it should come as no surprise that Gutter Rainbows, his fifth solo effort, is underground gold. The fact that Rainbows was released on Kweli’s Blacksmith label shouldn’t brand this as a strictly independent release, though. The production is far from independent, and is actually second to none, with rich soul-sampling provided by illustrious underground hip-hop names like 88-Keys, S1, and Ski Beatz.
After a brief intro, Kweli wastes no time getting to the major motif of the album, on the title track: “‘Cause the way I approach it is from another angle, I stay in the streets and notice the gutter rainbows. It ain’t no pot of gold, it’s where the product’s sold. It’s where we lock and load, cop that rock then roll.” Kweli does what he’s done best for years: keeping the rap game real. It’s not about how much Gucci he rocks. It’s not about the models on his private jet. It’s about life. More specifically, it’s about street life: the harsh realities of drugs, violence, death, and depression. In his own words, “This ain’t fashion rap, I’m bringin’ the passion back.”
The album isn’t an instant classic by any means, but if it lacks at all, it certainly isn’t in the area of passion. Kweli spits verse after verse of raw, emotionally gripping rhymes that capture the essence of the real world. It’s tough to hear his words and consider him anything but the greatest of modern philosophers. He jumps from topic to topic, pointing out infallible truths about life that make you take a second look at the way things are, and the way they ought to be. It’s the beauty of Talib Kweli, what’s made the man a legend.
The Queens native has never forgotten his roots, or bought into the bogus ideals that are consuming modern hip hop. It’s almost a spiritual experience to hear him preach about the streets. But if you’ve heard any other Kweli recording, you already know this. This album is just a further manifestation of the man’s innate ability to weave a perfect rap around topics that are inordinately heavy. Gutter Rainbows is full of his trademark greatness, and as such will go forward as yet another stunner for those who are familiar with him.
For those just beginning their path to righteousness via the words of Mr. Kweli, this album may seem a bit jumbled. It is not as accessible as some of his previous efforts, particularly The Beautiful Struggle and Eardrum, which were brimming with club beats multiplied in strength by his cunning wit (though tracks like “Cold Rain”, “Self Savior”, and “Wait For You” hit their mark here). Often times, the album feels as though he’s trying harder to create anti-ignorance propaganda than he is trying to create music. A few Rainbow tracks (“I’m On One”, and “Tater Tot” especially) are almost completely devoid of musical integrity. It feels like Kweli is focusing too hard on the words and not hard enough on the potency of the music itself on this record, but even Bob Dylan has been guilty of that a couple of times in his career.
It’s free-thinkers like Kweli and Dylan that push their respective genres forward, as well as remind everyone what their genre should be about. And while it feels almost sacrilegious to compare the two, it’s not hard to see where the similarities lie. These are two men working hard to make people think, really think, about the way things are and the way they ought to be. In that right, Gutter Rainbows is the ultimate success. However, in terms of accessibility, he’s done better work, and this release will probably just go down as a good, but not a great Talib Kweli album.