Recently, it seems the mainstream rap game has become oversaturated with designer duds and swaggering wannabes, slathering their tracks with Auto-Tune and gold chains. But amid the misguided hero-worship of poseurs, Talib Kweli has always been a rapper’s rapper.

Talib Kweli

Gutter Rainbows
Javotti

On Gutter Rainbows, Kweli gets back to the basics, with nary a peep about diamond-encrusted Escalades. He has remained firmly on the outskirts of mainstream rap, a genre populated by cocksure hacks more concerned with chart numbers than storytelling. With his latest album, Kweli re-enters the music world hell-bent on showing these fakes how it’s done.

The album’s title track is a sprawling showpiece, with soaring horns and a hard beat. The song harkens back to the days when rap advocated for the have-nots. “Gutter Rainbows” has a distinctly vintage feel — Kweli humanizes the marginalized denizens of the ghetto, and acts as a powerful “voice of the voiceless, hope for the hopeless.” Kweli’s flow is tighter than ever, and it’s no wonder powerhouses like Jay-Z and Kanye West claim Kweli as an inspiration.

Kweli sticks to similar themes on “Cold Rain.” The track opens with him saying “Let’s try something new,” but this song is classic Talib. It features a crooning female gospel singer while a soulful piano accompanies Kweli’s socially conscious lyrics. “Cold Rain” recalls a time when rap was a storytelling medium. And Kweli’s literate and astute commentary is a welcome relief in a rap market that glorifies over-indulgent capitalism. Kweli may be “a product of Reaganomics,” according to the song’s lyrics, but he sings for the victims of budget cuts: “We’re freedom writers like Bob Moses / the chosen, freedom writers like Voltaire / For my block, my borough, my hood, my city, my state, yeah / My obligation to my community is so clear / Yeah, we gotta save them, this opportunity so rare.”

Kweli indulges in some well deserved boasting and schools all the narcissist phonies on “I’m On One.” The track features a raw beat and the artist rapping on the hook that “Stop posing for the camera / I’m showing all you amateurs / life is a bitch, that’s how you handle her.” He spits faster and better than most of the rappers out there and has no problem exposing all these fame hoarders for their devious ways. Don’t piss off Talib Kweli, because he will skewer you in the cleverest way possible.

The record may be stocked with solid tracks, but even Kweli isn’t immune to the seductive powers of an Auto-Tuned slow jam. “How You Love Me” sounds like a Ne-Yo track (not a compliment) and comes across as bland with lyrics too dull to repeat. The track is plagued by a mind-numbing slow clap, which seems fitting considering that the song ends up being so anti-climatic.

Kweli’s latest album is a nearly pitch-perfect masterpiece with the occasional misstep or two. And though Kweli exposes the crippling bleakness inherent in the ghettos he grew up in, the album is ultimately optimistic. He finds beauty even in the artificially created “gutter rainbow,” and on the record, he blends conflicting emotions to create his own cacophony of colors.

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