In 1998, Talib Kweli said, “Every day someone ask me, ‘Where all the real MCs at?’/ They underground.” He was proudly pinpointing a shift in hip-hop’s values, how mainstream rappers wanted to be Hugh Hefner while those primarily concerned with artistry were netting only cult appeal. In subsequent releases however, Kweli endured criticism as he tried catchier hooks and wove pop culture references into his lyrics. He epitomized “conscious rap,” but he also struggled to stay within its confines.
So on his fifth LP, Prisoner of Conscious, Kweli raps to music rooted in the time before all that. While 2011′s Gutter Rainbows updated the neo-soul sound of Kweli’s onetime label Rawkus, Prisoner reaches back to even older genres. Samba revivalist Seu Jorge adds wistfulness to “Favela Love,” a song about wandering abroad. On “Come Here,” R&B singer Miguel does his best Marvin Gaye while Kweli composes a valentine made of hip-hop references: “We can do it like Common and Mary and ‘Come Closer’/ We can do it like Barack and Michelle, give me a fist bump.”
Throughout the album, Kweli raps of his connections to people and music. On album opener “Human Mic,” Kweli scrambles through a few opening lines before landing on a memory of 9/11: “I seen them crossing bridges by the masses, covered in the ashes of both towers.” Over celebratory horns in “High Life,” he and Rubix exchange dizzying verses that simulate the bustle of a block party. “Prisoner of Conscious? Nonsense,” Kweli raps at one point. Rather than feeling hemmed in, Kweli sounds liberated — not “conscious,” just awake.