Prisoner of Conscious begins with a rousing introduction, as Talib Kweli preaches to an audience about the power of the masses, and the importance of growth. He then follows that up with 100 seconds of vintage Kweli: line after line, putting a smile on your face. The Brooklyn MC has always been known as a great lyricist, revered by artists like Jay-Z, and Snoop Lion. For proof, check 2003’s Moment of Clarity, and Snoop Lion’s Twitter feed.
However, he’s always been labelled as a conscious rapper, and has mainly been confined to the hip-hop underground, with songs like ‘Get By’ being the rare exception. In the first two songs of Prisoner of Conscious, he demonstrates why he belongs amongst some of the all-time greats, and why anyone should aspire to be “lyrically Talib Kweli’.
‘Human Mic’ has him boasting, “Throw it back, Coniac, / I’m the best, you know that, / You can have your own opinion / But not your own facts”, while ‘Turnt Up’ has him evoking thoughtful metaphors to make his points (“It’s hard not consuming all the bullshit that they feed us, / Intravenous like a cord to the womb from the fetus”). Although the album doesn’t consistently possess the combination of Kweli’s top-notch lyricism and solid beats like the first two songs do, the first half of the album definitely contains a strong stretch of tracks.
There are some throwaway lines (“This cat wearing funny hats like the Pope wore”, “She’s colder than Minnesota”) within this first half. There are even songs like ‘Come Here’ and ‘Ready Set Go’, that don’t entirely work due to some shaky lyricism, or due to an awkward stretch out into the mainstream. However, starting with ‘Human Mic’ and ending with ‘Push Thru’, Prisoner of Conscious has a very solid and entertaining first half, with the majority of its tracks possessing a strong combination of potent lyricism and strong production. Shaky beat choices have been cited as weakness for Kweli, and it seems as if he’s attempting to change this with Prisoner of Conscious.
The last two songs of the album are also very strong. ‘Favela Love’ deals with finding true love within the rough area of a shantytown; a.k.a., a Favela (which is what shantytowns are referred to in Brazil). What makes ‘Favela Love’ truly great, and one of the best songs on the album, is the steady samba beat, and the backing vocals of Brazilian artist, Seu Jorge. His vocals fit in perfectly with the beat, and have a very strong presence in the song. He’s almost entrancing in the song. ‘It Only Gets Better’ features a strong chorus from Marsha Ambrosius, and features Kweli focusing on the perseverance necessary to turn your life around, to make it out of the daily struggle. Both songs mark a strong ending to the album, and make you want to go back and further explore Prisoner of Conscious.
What prevents this album from being classified as one of Kweli’s best, however, is the patchy middle stretch. ‘Hamster Wheel’ has a good idea to it, the inability to grow and progress in one’s life, akin to Nas’s ‘2nd Childhood’, but it suffers from a lack of execution. Using a hamster wheel as a metaphor for someone not growing in their life, and using it as the refrain in the song, just doesn’t hold as much gravity to it as the pains caused by someone reliving their childhood at the age of 30. Also, I don’t quite get where Kweli was coming from with ‘Delicate Flowers’. It sounds well-intentioned, but the refrain “girls have feelings” needs to be destroyed and never heard from again, just like ‘Upper Echelon’.
Overall though, what you have from Talib Kweli with Prisoner of Conscious is another solid album. It might not be in the same air as Quality, but, then again, few albums are. Many of the beats are lively and great to listen to, but as with all of Kweli’s music, it’s his lyricism that makes Prisoner of Conscious an album worth listening to.