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By Blake Morneau

Talib Kweli has meant as much to my development as a fan of hip-hop as any emcee I’ve come across in the time I’ve been educating myself in the genre. Like many fans, I was drawn as much to his complex, intricate rhymes as I was to the positive messages he always put in the music. Passionate. Articulate. Intelligent. These are all terms that get used ad nauseum when people describe Kweli and his music. While they may all be accurate, using these terms exclusively is to miss the fundamental point. “My job is to make great music and if I’m not making great music that makes you want to dance and party, I’m not doing my job,” explains Kweli, talking with me from his native New York. “People approach my music academically; they like what I have to say. So a lot of people focus on me being a lyricist. I benefit from that and it’s a great thing to be considered a thinking man’s lyricist but I feel like sometimes people miss the fact that the reason they like what I have to say is because the music is there.”

It’s a certain type of (mostly) positive pigeon-holing that makes for some interesting reactions when fans get to catch Kweli in a live setting. “I come from hip-hop and hip-hop is party music. A lot of my fans grew up on the type of hip-hop that I make and they don’t expect the whole visceral experience,” says Kweli, pondering the connections between people’s expectations of him and the reality. “I don’t focus on the party in my music and so they expect, even though they’re coming to a party—you’re coming to a nightclub or a theatre to see me perform—they think that’s not the vibe they’re going to get. It’s good that people think that, it’s great, because it’s always good when you can surprise people.”

Breaking out of the mould and surprising people is one of the driving forces behind his powerful new record, the brilliantly titled, Prisoner of Conscious. “Prisoner of Conscious is not how I see myself, it’s how other people in this business sometimes see me or try to portray me,” Kweli says.

For the first time in his career Kweli is directly addressing the image that people have of him, an image that sometimes clashes with reality. “I tried to put myself outside of my skin and be hyper-aware of my place in this business. I tried to make a personal album and this album is really about my place in this business and me as a man, rather than social ills.”

None of this is to say Prisoner of Conscious is without Kweli’s insightful social commentary. In fact the album, different from anything Kweli has released to this point in his illustrious career, is riddled with lines that signal the sharp observations and intellectual wit that have made him such a fan favourite. Lines like “Popular music got ’em confusing killers and artists / I kill it the hardest. Competition dearly departed / They feeling some sort of way ’cuz my flow revealing the garbage / I’m making ’em throw it up, you just making the people vomit,” from the epic opener “Human Mic,” proves that Kweli’s lyrical prowess is still sharp, no matter where he turns his eye.

The roster of guests on the new record, including Brazilian star Seu Jorge, rising hip-hop stars Kendrick Lamar and Curren$y and hip-hop stalwart Busta Rhymes, highlights Kweli’s willingness to embrace music from outside of current hip-hop trends while managing to continue being a bridge between the mainstream and the underground—both terms that Kweli is quick to dismiss. “I definitely think it’s dangerous to use those terms because it cuts people off from what they need to be hearing, on both sides. There are underground fans that could listen to a Drake song that could probably benefit them and there are mainstream fans that could probably use a lot more MF Doom in their lives.”

While some of the guests and some of the new sounds on the record might signal a significant change for Kweli, it’s still rooted in deep respect for the tradition of the music, something that Kweli finds lacking in much of modern hip-hop. “There’s a lack of historical context. There’s no focus on history. If they’re paying tribute to the old school, the people who came before them, it’s almost unintentional. You do it because you kind of have to because you come from it. There’s a disconnect, a feeling of, ‘I’m doing something brand new here that I came up with and I don’t owe my success to nobody before me,’ ” explains Kweli.

With over 20 years in the game, it’s keeping an open mind to the trends going on around him while holding focus on that old-school aesthetic that has allowed Kweli to remain one of the most respected and relevant voices in hip-hop music today. “I think the key is being accepting, paying attention to the business but not looking at music from my own limited, narrow experience. Not thinking if it doesn’t sound like hip-hop I was listening to in Brooklyn in the early’ 90s then it’s not valid. A lot of people listen to music based on their own personal experiences instead of just listening to the music.”

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