Long established as one of the most intelligent ‘conscious’ emcees in hip hop, Kweli’s latest release marks a culmination of years of consistent releases and represents a confident, impassioned and talented musician presenting his best solo work, on his sixth album. Released through his website, kweliclub.com, it is also independent in its very nature, not just style, as it rejects major labels and allows Kweli to engage directly with his listener.
A long term gripe I have had with his work, is that his undeniably skilful flow and content can at times lack to ability to engross the listener. However, on the whole, this album presents an engaging personality who is at the top of his game delivering stories, political and social observations and who is aware of his own strengths and works with them, not deliberately challenging them.
The album shows versatility without needing to conform to modern norms. The absence of 808’s and Mike Will Made It shout outs at the start of songs is refreshing and at times exhilarating as Statik Selektah’s triumphant, shuffling drums on ‘New Leaders’ drive Kweli and the impressive Underachievers along on the albums first single, whilst Lord Quest delivers crunching guitars in ‘Demonology’ and Oh No’s stuttering ‘Art Imitates Life’ beat is a masterpiece. At 11 tracks it is also the antithesis of many modern albums which can be detrimentally sprawling.
Kweli himself has stated that this is a lyrics driven album after Prisoner of Conscience, which was a deliberate attempt to break from the pigeonholed sound of a conscious rapper. It provided an interesting listen and had some unexpected beats and guests but overall it sounded disjointed and whilst in no way a poor album, better could be expected. And Gravitas seems to be that better album.
‘Inner Monologue’ looks at the state of modern hip hop and questions amongst other things the Molly lifestyle of modern hip hop and forces suppressing artists and ‘Demonology’ sees Kweli and Big KRIT challenge their inner demons. ‘State of Grace’ and ‘Rare Portraits’ highlight his strength as a storyteller as the songs look at the misogyny of hip hop and the life and rise of the man himself. Whilst ‘The Wormhole’ has one of the weaker beats on the album, it’s an interesting look at conspiracy theories, the Illuminati and criticisms of the establishment. ‘Art Imitates Life,’ which features Rah Digga and Black Thought, is something of a conscious rappers anthem, with Black Thought starting ‘let’s toast to paid mortgages, lasting marriages,’ and the three, enveloped with soaring strings, address the art form of rap and the lives they live, with Digga questioning, ‘Heard lyrics coming back, I say it never left,’ and with artists like this it seems they never did. Finally the last two tracks work together as a softer end to the album dedicated to love and the beautiful things in life. ‘Lovers Peak’ is too saccharine for me after a few listens though at 2 minutes it is a good length, and acts as the opener for the closer, ‘Colours of Me.’ The thought of a Mike Posner feature concerned me, but his presence is negligible and instead it’s left to a smooth Dilla beat to close the album. It isn’t a standout song on the album but is a nice finisher.
One of the great questions underpinning my listen to this album was; can Kweli carry off confidence. For so long he has come across as a learned nice guy with strong political and social opinions. However any attempts at coming across as hard have often fallen short and I did wonder if arrogance was something he could make work. ‘What’s Real’ finds Talib stating ‘What’s real… let me show ya,’ and presenting himself alongside Biggie, Jordan and Tyson as a Brooklyn native and legends in their field. While his talent is undeniable, has he managed to establish himself as a great… that is more open to debate. However, these statements don’t come across too corny, fitting within the context of a great album. On ‘Rare Portraits,’ his last line is ‘The frame can’t contain it, I’m a rare portrait’ and on the basis of this album, whilst not alone, he continues to pursue what he believes, even when many have moved away from it and creates a fantastic album in the process.