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Talib Kweli is a dude I want to root for all the time. As far as lyricists go, he’s in the upper echelon. He’s gifted as hell, a fact that is indisputable no matter how old you are, which “school” you’re from, or what subset of hip-hop you listen to. On a personal level, I want to root for the guy too. We’re roughly the same age, we come from roughly the same part of Brooklyn (give or take a couple of neighborhoods) and we were even high school classmates for a year (although I can’t say that I remember being a part of his circle, we must have crossed paths during that time.)

KweliWith that said, Kweli can be hard to take sometimes. His lyrical brilliance is occasionally tainted by a palpable self-righteousness. The only thing that separates him from modern-day Lauryn Hill sometimes is a sense of humor. His albums, whether solo, with partners Mos Def and DJ Hi-Tek, or as part of Idle Warship with vocalist Res, are always listenable, but the level of listenability is almost always dependent on the production. Like a lot of legendary emcees (KRS, Rakim) he always brings his “A” game to the mic, but his producers don’t always bring theirs.

For that reason, I was a bit ambivalent about purchasing Kweli’s latest album, Prisoner of Conscious. Hell, that’s the reason I’m ambivalent about purchasing every Talib Kweli album. For every album like Ear Drum, which paired the usual stellar lyricism with catchy beats and sympathetic guests, there’s an album like Gutter Rainbows, which was dead fucking boring. Conscious rides the middle ground. There are a couple of radio-ready cuts that are not embarrassing (like, say, The Beautiful Struggle‘s “A Game,”) there’s a little bit of experimentation, and a little bit of that old boom-bap. It’s not a throwback album, yet it’s not altogether of-the-moment. It’s relatively short, and primarily satisfying.

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A good first single always leaves you more intrigued for the album, and Prisoner‘s first single, “Come Here” fit the bill. A smooth, Motown-esque jam featuring vocals from the omnipresent Miguel, it satisfies Kweli’s quota of lyrical excellence while still being radio friendly (at least for the grown-folks stations.) For a more experimental vibe, you’d probably dig “Favela Love,” which travels into Brazil with assistance from musician Seu Jorge. Hell, Kweli even heads back to the Motherland with the jam “High Life,” which features Rubix & Bajah.

Prisoner of Conscious is far from an album of love songs and/or world music experiments, though. Kweli can still get raw on the mic, as evidenced by his rapid-fire delivery on the opening track “Turnt Up.” “Delicate Flowers” rocks a female-appreciation angle (a bit jarring after Busta Rhymes’ unnecessarily violent/misogynistic cameo on the RZA-produced “Rocket Ships,” but probably needed,) while “It Only Gets Better” (with vocals from Marsha Ambrosius) ends the album on a positive and uplifting note.

The guest lineup is relatively minimal for a hip-hop album, with the only eyebrow-raiser being Nelly. Yeah, that Nelly. “Before He Walked” attempts to place the St. Louis emcee out of his pop-rap comfort zone. Nelly gamely tries to drop a spiritual/”deep” verse, and I tried to be open-minded and appreciate it, but…let’s face it; Nelly’s not the world’s greatest emcee, and although I respect the intent of both artists, the song would’ve been much better as a solo Kweli joint. That said, there are only a handful of forgettable/skippable tracks on Prisoner of Conscious. “Hamster Wheel” is sunk by a clunky hook, while the electro-flavored production of “Upper Echelon” is a swing and a miss.

Proof that you should never judge a book by its cover (or an album by its title): Prisoner of Conscious isn’t so different from Talib Kweli’s earlier work. Same excellent technique, same vivid storytelling, thankfully combined with sympathetic production. He’s not trying to reinvent the wheel, and not trying to reverse course. File this under: win.

Grade: B

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