When a revolutionary puts down roots
On Gutter Rainbows’ “Friends and Family,” Talib Kweli proudly contextualizes his career, nodding to his Black Star days after opening the track with the proclamation “we are now witnessing the demise of the music business.” With Gutter Rainbows visibly self-released and its associated press work proudly proclaiming that it was created outside the normal machinery of the hip-hop industry, it’s a symbolic move that completes the circle for an artist who frequently has found himself well out in front of the wave. That said, the actual content of Gutter Rainbows feels surprisingly conservative at a time when the juicy center of the mainstream (e.g., Kanye West and Jay-Z) is itself stunningly pyrotechnic and at times challengingly strange.
While you wouldn’t expect Kweli to twist it with a Vocoder, the ‘70s soul musical bed on the title track or the noir-ish Bondisms on “Palookas” feel oddly standard-issue, particularly stacked against the Roots’ similar recent exercises or Big Boi’s album kicking the bar up a few more notches. His flow is good, his allusions are apt, his heart is pure. But the edge is gone. Like it not, Talib Kweli’s place in hip hop has become something like Yo La Tengo’s place in indie rock—a solid, moderately predictable journeyman who serves the musically leftish center with skill and charm, even if the frontier is now situated elsewhere.