For someone whose career has defied easy classification, it’s strange to think of Talib Kweli as a prisoner. Since he helped spark an underground rap renaissance in the late ’90s, Kweli has been a little bit of everything: the trusted teammate in the groups Black Star and Reflection Eternal, the dependable guest star on hits by Kanye West and Jahiem, the veteran lyricist with four successful solo albums under his belt.
So when he speaks about his new record, “Prisoner of Conscious,” which arrives in stores April 23, the metaphorical jail he’s referencing certainly isn’t of his own design. The Brooklyn rapper has been liberated for some time already, but now he’s showing listeners, and hip-hop as a whole, how he escaped from the sometimes suffocating confines of “conscious rap.”
“Some people won’t allow me to have the same balance that they have in their own lives,” said Kweli on the phone from California, ahead of his performance at the Middle East Downstairs on Tuesday. “No one is talking about positivity all the time. People like to have sex and go to clubs and do drugs and drink alcohol, even the most positive and conscious individuals.”
Kweli relishes the opportunity to explore his different sides on “Prisoner,” but it’s not the first time he’s done so. Upon close examination, the best moments from his catalog often reflect a man struggling with the internal conflict of using rap as a vehicle for social activism or personal hedonism, and the respective rewards of each pursuit. But despite his efforts, Kweli has struggled to shake the label of “conscious rapper” from casual fans and critics who haven’t afforded him the same leeway as related acts who have charted a similar career path up from the underground, such as West and Common.
“I think it’s because I just do the music,” Kweli, who has worked extensively with both artists, explains. “Kanye has become a pop star and Common is an actor as well, so people accept them in different roles. With me, [the fans] want me to just be the lyricist. If my lyrics aren’t super deep, it doesn’t matter how good the song is, some of my fans, if I’m not coming super deep about something they want to hear about, they are easily dismissive of it. Common and Kanye had established themselves as having more of a balance early in their careers. For me, it was Black Star, it was Reflection Eternal, then the first song that people got to know from me that was a popular song was “Get By.” So people take those impressions and use them to judge me from my whole career.”
It’s more than a bit ironic that an artist who has been embraced as one of hip-hop’s most thoughtful and progressive voices over the past decade has also been one of the most consistently scrutinized. While some see his ability to transcend rap’s geographical or aesthetic boundaries — as evidenced by collaborations ranging from Southern rappers UGK to New York hardcore poet Styles P to Norah Jones (yes, that one) — as a sign of Kweli’s impressive musical range, others have argued that he’s spread himself too thin. It’s a criticism he’s dealt with for years, but after one writer decried his guest appearance on a track with Atlanta’s Gucci Mane in 2010 as the “death of conscious rap,” Kweli decided to respond.
“To be honest with you, I enjoy the challenge,” Kweli said. “I enjoy the debate, I enjoy the conflict, and I enjoy responding when I know I’m in the right. A lot of these people who challenge me on these things, they haven’t done anything close to what I’ve done in this business. They haven’t contributed to the culture, not on my level. They’re just talking heads with opinions, they can’t rap, they don’t contribute to the culture, they don’t buy the music. I enjoy the debate, but I recognize that a lot of it is just white noise.”
Early indications are that “Prisoner of Conscious” should relish that ongoing challenge, as the album includes a punchy club-ready single “Upper Echelon” and a host of guest stars like Curren$y, Nelly, and Brazilian singer Seu Jorge. But in two collaborators, J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar, Kweli sees a new generation of artists who have helped create a path for rappers who are greater than the sum of their respective labels.
“It's a different way to approach music,” says Kweli. “When I first came out, it was about being down for hip-hop. These guys see themselves as part of the overall musical landscape, and you see Kendrick Lamar working with Lady Gaga and things like that. If you were to do that years ago, you would be looked at as a sellout. Now it is more acceptable, and I like that it’s more acceptable because it’s inclusive of everybody.”