Talib Kweli is a mercenary in the rap game, floating from label to label, collaboration to collaboration, chasing the thrill of a new project wherever it might end up. He’s not a General - you probably won’t see Talib Kweli on top of the charts anytime soon. But he’s a skilled fighter with skills recognized by the masses. For years he has been able to chameleon his way through rap without falling flat. Whether on high profile collaborations with Mos Def, medium profile collaborations with Hi-Tek, or completely un-hyped free releases like Liberation, his unannounced 2007 joint with Madlib, Talib Kweli delivers.
It’s funny, because for a journeyman, Kweli is actually remarkably distinctive. He has one of the most recognizable voices in hip hop, no doubt – his nasal flow is immediately recognizable, regardless of context. No matter who he’s working with, when Talib Kweli starts spitting there’s no doubt that it’s him on the mic. But that distinction doesn’t extend to his individual tracks; if you like some Talib Kweli, you’ll probably like the rest.
He knows it, too. He’s already announced that another upcoming album, Prisoner of Consciousness, is “a departure from what people might be used to hearing” from him. Gutter Rainbows is not that change of direction. It’s not a radical departure from his previous work, nor is it an ambitious concept album. Listening to the album is like putting on an old sweatshirt – comfortable, cozy, familiar. The album swells with soul-tinged beats that provide a warm base for Kweli’s distinctively sharp rhymes.
That familiarity does not breed contempt, however. Quite the opposite; Gutter Rainbows is a great album, Kweli near his best. He is, and always has been, a lyricist more than a beat rapper, allowing him to take familiar sound and transform it into completely new meaning. His raps are as referential as ever, “writing this on my iPad.” He’s hashtagging and living in the digital age; this is a hip hop album for the moment, not for the ages.
Gutter Rainbows does have some new looks for Kweli, and some standout tracks. “Tater Tot” is heavy and ominous, laced with rich strings and punctured by gunshots. “Palookas,” which features Sean Price, achieves a low-fi, close to the ears sound. The bouncy “Mr. International” features a hook that pushes Kweli out of backpack rap and toward N.E.R.D. territory. But he embraces his roots, too, jokingly asking where Mos Def is, and bringing new definition to his familiar refrain of “banging on your eardrum.”
There’s a fair share of posturing, like the interlude imploring Kweli to show young rappers how it’s done before challenge song “I’m On One.” On the album’s title track — which proclaims Kweli as the Voice of the Voiceless and Hope of the Hopeless — he calls out empty boasts: “You say you blast a four four/you don’t shoot/it’s more like you shot me an email/but forgot to attach the vocal.” That posturing never gets in the way of the message of Kweli’s music, though, and rather than getting bogged down in taunts and boasts, he keeps his mood light and his flows agile.
Gutter Rainbows is a strong rap album from an often underappreciated hip hop wanderer, a little-promoted record that surpasses any expectations you might have had. It’s not a masterpiece, but neither is it a disappointment. It’s Talib Kweli poking his head into your doorway, just to see what’s up. If you’ve met him before, you should welcome him back with open arms.
Don't forget that you can still download / sample "Cold Rain", an excellent cut from the album: