Talib Kweli is truly a “conscious rapper” in every sense of the phrase, so it’s not surprising that he’d eventually come to view that label as a restriction. The 37-year-old rapper’s long awaited fifth studio album, Prisoner Of Conscious, is undoubtably an opportunity for Kweli to wrestle with his own legacy and do battle with his detractors. Although the record has a combative spirit that spits in the face of the critics that have tried to define Kweli and place him in a box, he doesn’t stray away from what he’s become known for: political, lyrically precise rap music. The political context and underlying messages may not always be as prominent or heavy-handed on this album as they have been in the past, but his lyrical ability and dexterity still shine through.
The project is clearly an attempt by Kweli to move into a more personal, idiosyncratic mode of storytelling, while at the same time making an argument for his relevance. Even a cursory glance at the guest list reveals an attempt to move towards or at least acknowledge the mainstream: Miguel, Busta Rhymes, Nelly, Curren$y and Kendrick Lamar. Lamar in particular, with his gnarled, wordy flow, is a great fit for Kweli’s lyrical landscape. The Curren$y and Lamar collaboration “Push Thru” is simple and down to earth, but showcases Kweli’s lyrical influence on today’s generation. “But this environment got us violent, ready to crash in/To society, take this driver seat, hope you fastened/Your seatbelts twice, when I rolled them dice, I crapped,” Lamar raps. It’s that type of clever play on words that were used to hear Kweli spit alongside his Black Star counterpart Mos Def.

Make no mistake: Kweli has still got it and on “Hold It Now” he gets a little conceited. “No one as gifted as this/I’m magnificent/Classically consistent/I’m nasty as black licorice,” he raps. And it’s easily one of the album’s best tracks. Another standout is “Before He Walked,” a piano-driven, almost gospel song that features Nelly and Abby Dobson, who gives a powerful vocal performance that sounds like a young Mary J. Blige. Both Kweli and the St. Louis rapper recount the importance music has had on their lives before even getting into the music business. “Music saved me/Swooped in like the Navy/Put a lifetime of scars over 16 bars,” Nelly mercilessly raps.
Despite theses big name collaborations, the album still makes room for some oddball experiments. The synth-speckled, Brazilian-inspired “Favela Love” showcases Kweli’s rapid flow and the sweet, melancholy voice of star Seu Jorge over a mellow, tropical beat. Kweli’s impeccable lyrics create a soothing song about the brilliance of Brazil. It gets my nomination for the official World Cup Song of 2014. That type of populist, global appeal is obviously what Kweli is working towards on this record. His ability to craft and tell stories in a captivating way has not gone unnoticed, and while Prisoner Of Conscious will not go down as his best album, it does display how versatile of an artist he is. Maybe his prison is larger than he thinks.