At 37, Brooklyn emcee Talib Kweli is in a strange position. Rap is one of the fastest-moving genres out there and Kweli, who, alongside Mos Def in their Black Star group helped shape the development of alternative (or ‘backpack’) rap in the late 90s, has some serious genealogy associated with his name. Particularly in a genre in which most of the heavyweights of the early era are dead and gone (Biggie, Tupac, Big L, Big Daddy Kane etc), the prospect of sticking it out and continuing to make relevant material well into your late 30s is one that is rightly met with some cynicism. Rap is a young kids’ game and it is only usually by association with these kids (Jay-Z with Kanye) or through some unshakable cult character (Nas, Q-Tip et al) that rappers get to stay on much past their late 20s. Kweli, then, is an odd proposition. Black Star undoubtedly helped influence the direction of rap in the 90s and his 2002 solo debut ‘Quality’ delivered one of the best songs of that time in the Kanye West-produced ‘Get By‘, but otherwise, his releases have been met with polite nods of the head but increasing apathy. We know he’s a valuable part of rap history but we tend to treat each of his LP releases like contemporary art, crowding around it, making approving noises and then moving away rapidly, vaguely confused.
With news of the imminent release of his fifth solo LP, ‘Prisoner of Conscious’, came the usual murmurs about Black Star, conscious rap and just where Talib Kweli fits within our modern conception of rap. To date, I’ve read a few reviews of the album and many seem to have a similar preoccupation with dissecting the meaning behind the album’s title. ‘Prisoner of Conscious’, I’ve read it posited, is a recognition on Kweli’s behalf that the world has moved past his brand of socially conscious rap and so, he realises, whatever he releases is bound to be outmoded, passe. Regardless of what Kweli himself thinks of his standing in rap, ‘Rocket Ships’ is proof that the naysayers, decrying the end of intelligent rap and pointing to the rise of 2Chainz, Chief Keef and a hundred other increasingly dumb rappers as evidence of that, are premature in their forecasts. ‘Rocket Ships’ is patently not the most intelligent song on the album, nor does it try to be. Instead, it’s just a really well-produced track that sees Talib Kweli joined by fellow veteran Busta Rhymes (thankfully not in his Jamaican guise this time) to deliver the typical machismo that underpins rap. Talib Kweli is too old and too wise to be pigeon-holed.
The production is really the first point of interest. Handled ably by Wu-Tang de facto leader RZA, the beat opens to the kind of neo-Arabic-electro vibe that has characterised much of Kanye’s recent work (some of it, too, RZA produced) and blossoms, unexpectedly, to offer up a lush, soulful bed of sound – just the type of setup in which Kweli flourishes. Despite being occasionally written-off as nasal and child-like, Talib Kweli’s vocals are also always earnestly delivered by the rapper and consistently dexterous. He makes strange word choices occasionally, but the way he takes in Al Gore, the Sistine Chapel and the Muppet movie is so self-assured that the doubts over the selections never stay with you too long. Alongside the tongue-twisting Kweli, Busta Rhymes sounds to be spitting, for once, not that fast, and the juxtaposition between the two elder statesman of rap seems both natural and complementary. The breakdown and accompanying interlude about cooking pork in the house is hilarious. There are problems with this track (over-complicated lyricism and a distinct lack of a memorable chorus included) and there will be problems with the album, too. Like contemporary art though, the best way to experience the twilight years of Talib Kweli is to suspend our expectations and open our minds to discovery. Listened to in this way, ‘Rocket Ships’ takes off.
Talib Kweli – Rocket Ships Ft. Busta Rhymes