Prisoner of Conscious (Javotti Media, 2013)
by Talib Kweli
originally published at Dusted Magazine

The title works, but not the way you think. If something is holding back Talib Kweli, one of the technically better rappers of the last however many presidential administrations – and, per the album’s baseline mediocrity, something certainly seems to be – it’s not the stigma of being yoked to conscious rap. (“Stigma” is already putting it awfully strongly; a link to conscious rap, especially Kweli’s, is by 2013 more like a history of questionable clothing choices or a really funny speech impediment than grounds for persecution.)

Besides, if he feels hemmed in by the affiliation, he’s not doing himself any favors with the maudlin air of ceremony he bestows on every point he pauses to make throughout Prisoner, from the logistically improbable call-and-response of the intro to the stunningly half-hearted “free Pussy Riot” at the record’s close. These points are generally not subtle (“post-racial? More like most racial!”) and almost never surprising, save the occasional demonstration of a weirdly retrograde sense of gender relations, as on the charmless “Delicate Flowers” and the totally icky “Come Here.” He even finds it necessary to insist on the proper (as it were) spelling of “Turnt Up,” on the song of the same name: “with a T, with a T!”

But it’s not sanctimony that drags the album down so much as lack of focus, both lyrical and aesthetic. (“Thank goodness Talib Kweli finally did a song with Seu Jorge,” said nobody ever.) Coursing between the ham-fisted message-moments is a nimble and reliably engaging display of verbal dexterity, same as it ever was; on those grounds alone Kweli still outshines Kendrick Lamar, who’s equally sanctimonious but a lot more comfortable with his squareness. But the freewheeling wordplay never quite amounts to anything deeper, despite his repeated calls for your attention. Probably, paradoxically, because of them.

To wit: “Prisoner of conscious? Nonsense,” he tap-dances on the agreeable brunchtime cocktail “Ready Set Go”: “the opposite of conscious is asleep; I prefer to call it awake / It’s so ironic, it’s beautiful when you finally get awake it’s your funeral – you don’t get it? A wake.” The problem is somewhere in there: for someone who harps so staunchly and skillfully on the virtues of awakeness, the only real imprisonment is the expectation – cultivated by his own hand – that his stream of consciousness is flowing in something resembling a direction.