Talib Kweli has always been a somewhat-frustrating figure in hip-hop. An undeniably gifted rhymer with a sharp wit, sharper focus and always-engaging perspective, the Brooklynite has never quite delivered that acclaimed classic that fans have expected from the guy who was an integral part of such seminal late ’90s/early ’00s albums as Black Star and Reflection Eternal’s Train of Thought. That’s not to say Kweli hasn’t created his fair share of great music, his catalog is strong, but there isn’t that one solo work that stands out as definitive or an undeniable benchmark in the canon of hip-hop classics.
In recent years, Kweli has adopted a persona that seems to make him hip-hop’s great mediator. Irritatingly branded a “backpack” rapper earlier in his career, Kweli seems to relish the opportunity to shatter the preconceived image that most have of rappers labeled “conscious.” On his new album, Gravitas, Kweli manages to find the middle ground between hip-hop’s more thoughtful content and its more trivial — and he sounds a lot less contrived than he did when he attempted to pull off the same trick on 2013’s overly calculated Prisoner of Conscious. On Gravitas Kweli seems much more comfortable dabbling in different aesthetics — and that results in the most complete album he’s released in a decade.
A combination of soul-searching and swagger permeates “Inner Monologue,” and he takes a much-needed shot at hip-hop fans obsessed with the Illuminati on “Wormhole.” Rap-rock sometimes yields laughably bad music, but Kweli channels classic rock roar on the thundering “Demonology,” which features Mississippi rap upstart Big K.R.I.T. and blues-rock guitar virtuoso Gary Clark, Jr. The Mike Posner-assisted “Colors of You” closes the album on a whimsical note–but doesn’t come off as saccharine or lightweight at all — even as Kweli compares the world to a coloring book.
Kweli may have yet to deliver his masterpiece, his Black On Both Sides if you will–but he proves once again on his new album that he isn’t afraid to take chances. His only measuring stick is his ambition, his muse is his own imagination. He’s not trying to appease anyone and it sounds like he’s completely comfortable in his own skin. And even if he sheds that skin and moves on to something else, you know that he’s making the music that he wants to make. And thank goodness that music is as inspired and expansive as this.