Talib Kweli: Gutter Rainbows (Album Review)

February 8, 2011

“Voice to the voiceless, hope to the hopeless,” Kweli calls for in the title track of “Gutter Rainbows,” which is also the first song on the record following the opening skit. Gutter Rainbows comes just months after Kweli’s reunion album with longtime collaborator DJ Hi Tek, Revolutions Per Minute, which came out under the moniker of ReFlection Eternal last summer. RPM was a superb album–containing quite a few highlights it was simply an overall solid, substantial hip hop record (it made slot 10 of my 10 Best Albums of 2010 post).

So it’s a bit surprising Kweli was ready to make a follow-up so quickly; this new one was a digital only release (though he raps for the “hipsters” amongst many others as claimed here, he hasn’t embraced the vinyl resurgence amongst said hipsters and hip hop heads!). First of all, Gutter Rainbows is not quite as good as RPM and it’s certainly not a Beautiful Struggle, but what it is is a nice album with solid (but not Hi Tek) beats filled up by Kweli’s confident tongue-twisting rhymes. Kweli’s a rapper that you are happy just to hear new output from, anything that lets such a smooth, entertaining flow be showcased is better than 9/10s of the rap competition. The theme of this record seems to be the beauty amidst the grime, the sacred hidden in the profane, the humanity amidst broken structures within the inner city. Granted, a theme explored by a lot of hip hop, and not treated in huge depth constantly here (Kweli gets a break from the city to “write this album from my ipad” on an international flight–“Mr. International”). There are light affirmations of the value of “Friends and Family,” but there’s also the menacing, harrowing biographical depiction of a returning veteran from Iraq back in the inner city trying to “fit in with civilians” when he’s “used to killing,” and whose night out with a girl he meets at a fast food restaurant ends in a tragic way he managed to escape overseas (“Tater Tot”). “I’m on One” and “Cold Rain” are great hip hop tracks with car window rattling beats and top skill bars by Kweli. The album closes with the excellent jazz-infused call for responsibility and salvation, “Self Savior,” a song maintaining that race is no longer the classification for oppression but that poverty in general is (“every poor person is a n***** now”). Looking for help, the protagonist finds social structures and police not to be on his side and  only hate in far too much of modern religion, yet he affirms  “prayer for my enemy,” even though so many others put “style over substance.” Talib Kweli tells listeners to “get back to your essence, use your gifts to share your presence, don’t count your dollars before you count your blessings.”

Album rating: 7/10

Note: Talib kicks off the start of a new year of music; this record is the strongest of the year so far, though both White Lies and Smith Westerns also released solid work in January.  February is bringing us a new Drive By Truckers LP and a pre-release buzzed second LP by Jessica Lea Mayfield, and in early march we finally get to hear Lupe Fiasco’s long-delayed “Lasers.”

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