Review: Streams of Thought, Vol. 1 by Black Thought

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I almost feel sorry for anyone with releases during Kanye West’s GOOD Friday schedule since they’ll inevitably be lost in the hype and discourse that sticks to West. Two examples already come readily to mind: Curren$y’s The Marina, an 8-track EP that’s his first full team-up with Harry Fraud since Cigarette Boats (a top 5 Curren$y project), and Black Thought’s Stream of Thoughts, Vol. 1. There are some people who have waited decades for Black Thought to release solo output outside of the Roots and now that it’s finally here, it seems buried under whether or not we should let Kanye West’s politics color our regards for Ye, released the same day. It’s a shame, and it should be stated plainly that both Stream of Thoughts, Vol. 1 and The Marina, though marketed as EPs, aren’t that far off from the average album length of Kanye West’s recent projects. (And in the case of Curren$y, longer than that.) And no one should be surprised that Thought’s first solo release is this short: the Roots albums have themselves been getting shorter and shorter with undun at 38 minutes thanks to an instrumental suite and …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin only 33 minutes long.

Everyone already knows that Black Thought’s technical skill ought to place him amongst the top emcees of all time, but I want to take time to highlight that his rapping has surprisingly remained constantly great since the 1990s whereas others might’ve declined. He’s an inspiring presence on Black Milk’s No Poison No Paradise (2013) to Freddie Gibbs’ Shadow of a Doubt (2015), and he offers acrobatic verse after acrobatic verse on the Roots’ last album, …And Then You Shoot Your Cousin (2014), which was a sight to see after playing it (relatively) safer on undun (2011) or How I Got Over (2010).

The production here is all skeletal beats but heavy-hitting drums, letting Thought do most of the heavy-lifting on his own. There are guest verses from Rapsody and Style P, with no regards for hooks except a brief one on closer “Thank You.” In that regard, the aptly titled Streams of Thought, Vol. 1 brings me back to the Roots’ “75 Bars (Black’s Reconstruction)” from 2008’s massively underrated Rising Down (one of the few good albums from 2008). As mentioned, Thought’s flow is as good as ever, with eclectic references to literature, history and music, and particularly black literature, history and music. It does his flow a disservice to try and dissect any specifics, but “Twofifteen” has unique, internal rhymes and alliteration made up of “vultures,” “voltage,” “dosage,” “obsessive-compulsive,” “explosive” before switching schemes and hurdling over “arachnophobia” without issue. And he doesn’t let up: the second song starts “I’m not a typical arrogant American on prescribed medicine / I’m sick as I ever been.”

I can’t help but compare Streams with Pusha T’s Daytona, except Kanye West’s beats were so detailed that they invited repeat listens if Pusha T’s quotables didn’t already. The production on Streams of Thought, Vol. 1 is handled almost entirely by 9th Wonder, except “Thank You”, which is produced by fellow Justus League member Khrysis. You might know 9th Wonder for his work with Little Brother in the early 2000s, but he’s had a “comeback” of sorts of late, from credits on Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. to Anderson .Paak’s Malibu to Rapsody’s recent and underrated Laila’s Wisdom.

9th Wonder’s beats here, while mostly good – the pitch-shifted French female vocal of “Twofifteen”; what sounds like synth-strings scrapping around on “9th vs. Thought”; the hammer-on-anvil-like drumming of “Making a Murderer” and the occasional flute flirtation – it’s mostly happy to merely be a vehicle for Black Thought’s rapping. Actually, “Dostoyevsky” is pretty static, with only this starry synth padding out the empty spaces and the occasional guitar chord. But it’s always a pleasure hearing Rapsody, returning the favour for Black Thought featuring on Laila’s Wisdom’s centerpiece “Nobody” (also produced by 9th Wonder); “It took more than 7 years, make a sandman drink Everclear / It ain’t ever clear, we ain’t ever guaranteed the year.” Ultimately, Thought’s first solo release does what’s expected of him; I just wish it did a little more. B PLUS