Whether it’s his collaboration with partner Mos Def on 1998’s Mos Def and Talib Kweli are Black Star, one of the most influential rap records of the ’90s, or his Reflection Eternal project with Cincinnati beatsmith Hi-Tek, or his numerous solo joints, Brooklyn MC Talib Kweli is perennially crafting intellectually stimulating, verbally complex, and utterly authentic hip-hop. In 2011, he’s keeping extra busy, with two albums hitting the streets: the self-released Gutter Rainbows, out Jan. 25, and the long-awaited Prisoner of Conscious, a major-label effort due out later this year.
SPIN caught up with Kweli to get the scoop behind both of these albums, discover some of his latest influences (Holden Caulfield!), check in on the future for Black Star, and talk about how technology has shaped the current landscape of hip-hop.
Talib Kweli, “Cold Rain” (DOWNLOAD MP3)
SPIN: You tweeted the other day that you were living a life of daily epiphanies. What inspired that?
Talib Kweli: That’s actually a lyric. I was listening to some unreleased Black Star stuff that I worked on with Mos [Def], and those were some of the lyrics. Listening back to a lyric that I wrote a year ago, I was like wow, when I said that on that song, I must have been having some sort of epiphany that day. That’s what you want out of life. You want to realize something new every day, something that makes you happy or helps you to grow. If you’re not realizing something new every day that’s not making you grow or making you happy, you’re not really living.
That’s from Black Star material that you’re working on, going forward?
Sometimes, I hesitate, because when I say that stuff in interviews, people start looking for an album.There isn’t an album on the horizon, but we always make music together.I don’t know where those songs that we made will live at this point.It might be part of a Black Star project or I might end up putting them out if they don’t come out soon enough.
That big Black Star show in New York last year was a big tease — everyone got really fired up about it.
We do a Black Star reunion show about 10 times a year. [Laughs] It’s like an inside joke to us because every time we do one of these shows, which we do quite often, it’s always billed and sold and treated as this big reunion.We do these “reunions” every couple months.Let the record state that we don’t ever sell it like that.
How is technology changing the way you release music? How do you decide which songs to just put out there, and which to save for albums?
I listen and listen and listen and the songs tell me where they belong.Songs have a life of their own. I’ve been working on Prisoner of Conscious, which is my next album on Blacksmith/EMI, but Gutter Rainbows wasn’t a fully realized album concept until this summer. I was out of my deal at Warner Bros., and I wanted to have music in the marketplace. “Cold Rain” was the first song from “Gutter Rainbows” that defined the heart of the album, because the lyrics were so timely with what was going on with the mosque at Ground Zero. That was the first lyrical idea for that song. I felt like if that song came out on Prisoner of Conscious a year from now, maybe that wouldn’t be such a timely subject matter. So, it was songs that were urgent, that I was like, “These songs need to be heard right now.”
Aside from the timeliness, is there a unifying theme to Gutter Rainbows?
The musicality of it, the live instrumentation, the lushness of the tracks I picked are reminiscent of sounds that I grew up with.It’s lush hip-hop, and it’s arranged. The subject matter sort of matches that. It’s a very personal album, subject matters have been on my mind since I was a child. And it’s a very comfortable album. It’s like a comfortable blanket or something, you know?
What are some of those thoughts of childhood that ended up on the album?
Just the idea of a gutter rainbow — a rainbow caused by an oil slick in the gutter is the only rainbow that kids in the hood see sometimes, and it’s an interesting concept to me. And it’s a universal concept. I read Catcher in the Rye recently and there’s a similar phrase about gutter rainbows. Reading that book was the nail in the coffin like, “Okay, boom, I gotta make this album.” Catcher in the Rye is a book that you’re supposed to read as a child or a teenager, and I didn’t read it, so it’s interesting to read it from an adult perspective. And I went to boarding school, so I relate to the whole boarding school angst thing. I understand it and I’ve seen it in its ugliest forms. But he was such a dirtbag, Holden Caulfield. I’m reading the book talking aloud to myself, “You’re a fucking dick, man! Stop acting like that!”Then at the end you realize he was fucked up and you’re like, “Oh, he was fuckin’ crazy the whole time.”I just really didn’t like that guy. And it made me not like the book. But I feel like if I were a teenager I would have understood him more.He was so privileged, that was the thing that was driving me batty.He was so privileged and had so many reasons to not say “fuck the world.”
As far as Prisoner of Conscious, which has been talked about for quite some time, how it is coming along so far?
It’s coming along pretty good. I’m excited about it. I’m excited about the size of it. I want to improve upon what I did well on [2007’s] Eardrum.I feel I was able to marry a big sound with an underground aesthetic. I can’t be Kid Cudi. I feel like what Cudi is doing, it doesn’t come from a hip-hop aesthetic even though he does. He’s definitely a hip-hop dude, he’s a rapper, but the way he approaches music is not like an MC. He approaches music like a musician. It’s harder for an artist like me to do something like that because I’m Talib Kweli, I can’t be somebody else. The way I do it has to be in my way.
What about your career do you feel trapped by?
I don’t. I feel like other people are trapped. I don’t feel like the type of music I’ve done has stopped me from anything. I could go to the favelas in Sao Paolo or I could go to a fucking nightclub with Diddy. There’s a lot of things I could do because of the music I made. I feel blessed for all of it.There are so many worlds I could step into and exert some kind of influence over, and that’s what I try to do.
Any guests lined up for Prisoner of Conscious?
I don’t even want to say the guests yet, but there are going to be some surprises on there.
You’ve mentioned TV on the Radio as a band you’ve connected with. Have you been working with anyone in the rock universe as well?
The Idle Warship project is going to be like that. I really hope to work with Kyp [Malone] and those guys from TV on the Radio. We talked about it. I work a lot with Chester French. He worked on the Reflection Eternal album. We’ve done mix tapes, they’re going to be on the Idle Warship record. I’m looking to do more stuff like that.