Talib Kweli is one of those artists who manages to be both within and outside hip-hop mainstream awareness. His name is widely known, but he’s better known for his collaborations: he’s laid down verses for The Roots, Kanye West and DANGERDOOM amongst others, and is one half of Black Star and Reflection Eternal. His gifts on the mic have spread his name far and wide, but his own work remains lesser known. 2002 début Quality aside, his solo albums are far from household, and while most hip-hop fans recognise his delivery and voice, they’re not always aware of the man behind the mic. With Gutter Rainbows, Kweli’s first solo album in four years, he’s looking to spread his name and his game further afield.
Gutter Rainbows – whose name relates to both oil slicks on curb-sides and offers a nice metaphor for rags-to-riches struggle – has a lot to recommend it. Any rapper who can work “Kurt Vonnegut” and “Ramadan” into a single verse clearly knows how to flow, and the scope of Kweli’s rhymes encompasses everything from classic MC putdowns to sharp, relevant hooks, with a myriad of clever pop culture references thrown in for good measure. The flow is effortless at times, spilling off Kweli’s tongue like lyrical honey, able to be percussive or freeform or both depending on which mood he’s in.
Opening track ‘After The Rain’ is a slow intro number, mixing spoken-word dialogue over a slow, melodic backing, but when title track ‘Gutter Rainbows’ kicks in, the album changes into a more hook and beat-driven style. It’s refreshing to hear a rapper refrain from lazily sampling on every track, which is becoming worryingly commonplace, and have enough faith in his delivery and rhymes to let them carry the album. Gutter Rainbows does use samples on occasion – The Noisettes on ‘So Low’, Beastie Boys on ‘I’m On One’ – but in general Kweli’s music is originally composed, which both increases the impact of the samples when they’re used and forces you to pay attention to his words rather than waiting for a sample-heavy chorus. Despite being his senior, both in experience and in age, Talib’s desire to avoid samples and focus on composition will remind many of Lupe Fiasco’s The Cool, which remains a contemporary benchmark for this kind of hip-hop.
Yet Gutter Rainbows doesn’t quite live up to its early promise. Some of the beats, which Kweli has so admirably highlighted, feel a little recycled – ‘Palookas’ and ‘Tater Tot’ – and even some great delivery can’t elevate these above the ordinary. The album flies out of the blocks, the first five or six tracks vary from good to excellent, but the pace of the record slows as it goes on. ‘Palookas’ features a couple of inventive putdowns – “You ain’t got a verse better than my worst one/You vs. me? A .50 cal versus a squirt gun” – but stutters too often, the beat dropping out for punches that don’t come. The well-meaning ‘Friends & Family’ strays the wrong side of sweet with its cutesy chorus – “Nothing else matters more than friends and family” – and innumerable shout-outs, and ‘Uh Oh’ never catches fire.
That said, the highs of Gutter Rainbows are very enjoyable. The opening series of tracks foster some goodwill that doesn’t run out despite the album’s subsequent slowdown, and final track ‘Self Savior’ is based on a tight jazz-based beat which makes for a nice creative finale. Kweli’s witty flows, at their best, are infectious and full of superb moments, which impress upon us his natural gift for rapping and desire to avoid the rap clichés of money, cars and women. The boastful ‘Mr. International’ is as close as he gets to ostentation, but even this track is more playful than narcissistic: “They call me Mr. International/I’m on the runway more than a fashion show”.
All told, it’s a mixed bag of an album, full of peaks and troughs. Kweli’s gift for writing hooks is undeniable, but an uneven tracklist, perhaps partly caused by having 13 different producers over the record’s 14 tracks, means it’s eminently listenable, but no more than very solid.
Best tracks: ‘Gutter Rainbows’, ‘Ain’t Waiting’, ‘Mr. International’.
If you like this, you’ll also like: We Are Black Star – Black Star, Rising Down – The Roots, Desire – Pharoahe Monch