I am not going to pretend that I am in any way proficient at reading the subtleties of meaning beneath the various layers art hides behind, but luckily you don’t need to be a sleuth of any sorts to get what’s going on at the heart of Talib Kweli’s second release of this year, Gravitas. There are a couple of monologues on opening track, “Inner Monologue”, where we are told all about the loss of placing a real value on art, in all its guises. It calls for a new way to distribute these things when the modern world only has a fleeting knowledge of how to properly evaluate. It seems therefore quite relevant to note just how Talib Kweli is distributing his new album – he has it up for streaming through Pandora, and he is managing sales exclusively through his own website, offering a digital download, a CD, or a vinyl purchase. Digital download OR CD, OR vinyl. We’ll come back to that in a second.
In a really spirited way he’s also making you part of the Kweli Club when you make a purchase, gaining access to a unique email address to contact the artist on, which is “a dedicated account on (his) phone exclusively for you.” Sounds pretty sweet. Now, I often feel I have failed in my duties as a reviewer of an album if I don’t look a little into an artist before reviewing a release of theirs, and came across some genuinely nice stuff about Talib Kweli; an active humanitarian, he’s someone who has dedicated a lot of time and effort helping causes that are close to his heart. However, there really does seem to be a troubling side to it all, and troubling because I’m not sure whether the side I come down on is the progressive one or not, but it all stems from the delivery of this particular release. As someone who seems to be making this move towards direct distribution in an effort to strengthen the bond between himself and the customer (his fans), it seems odd this very clear split between whether you are buying the digital release, the CD, or the vinyl. See, there isn’t any crossover, and the physical formats are coming towards the middle of February. Sure, a small point, but it’s a point I would have largely ignored, had it not been for some weird scenes on Twitter, for those who have pre-ordered the vinyl and queried about getting a digital copy. It seems the response is that if you want to have a physical and a digital release of the album, you have to buy two separate copies of the album. Reasoning being ‘that’s what I did back in my day’. The attitude towards someone previewing it is rather aggressive on behalf of Talib Kweli too, to quote a recent barrage of Twitter comments, “True fans don’t ‘need’ a preview”. There’s a whole host of back and forth going on with Talib Kweli talking about this album being for “true fans”, it’s all rather bizarre. Firstly, to be clear, the album is up for preview, through Pandora (bit of a weird one, but fine), but there are so many odd things going on with this release.
The album itself has seen a rather quick turnaround from an artist whose previous release was set back almost six months from its original ship date, finally landing in May this year. Gravitas was announced only in August, so it’s admirable that Talib Kweli has managed to get this record out so quickly, although he’s helped by his decision to ditch any major distribution channels. Oh man, all of this, and I haven’t even mentioned the content of the album itself yet. But it’s important to keep this in your mind when listening to the album itself, as ultimately it comes off just as its creation process suggests, and subsequent volley of online back-and-forth – this is a record which wants to be progressive, shit it references examples all the time, and it wants to break forward in ways its contemporaries have done, but it just can’t. It’s bound by old rules, and no matter how well done those tropes are, it just can’t break free of that fact.
And that’s one really weird thing about this record, because the record itself feels contemporary, and modern, and sure, it’s taking a lot of its cues from similar artists, but when your labelmates and previous collaborating artists are some of the strongest in the industry, it doesn’t matter when the quality is strong. This is a really strong release, but the best parts are when Talib Kweli is doing the same thing he’s done for a long time already, as there are some really wonderful moments which showcase his accrued skill over the years. At times there are hints of repetition, and slight weariness, but on the whole, it’s surprisingly fresh.
“Demonology” follows the opening track, and feels like Kweli is trying to shake off his roots once more, yet all the time owing them big for this track’s particularly stellar production: “I got my own demons what am I supposed to do with yours? So many demons in the dance hall”. “Violations” has a featuring credit for Raekwon, and is an easy highlight. It’s a clever track with really textured samples being thrown around some really wonderful percussion, and Raekwon, obviously, who is gold on the track. Even the last thirty seconds, where the percussion paves the outro is worthy of mentioning, for its really solid showing. “Rare Portraits” is a little too steeped in Kweli’s history, again, and these parts of the album are where Kweli kinda loses my support, as it’s all rather self-congratulatory for things that perhaps aren’t all owing to Kweli. “New Leaders” seems to be veiling criticism towards Kanye West, which is bizarre, as Kweli just one track previously seems to take credit for Kanye’s success (Kanye produced Kweli’s debut album). As a track, it’s fine, but like all too much on this record, it’s really hard to get behind, when you genuinely want to. When on “What’s Real”, the chorus goes, “let me show you what’s real”, you kinda figure you’re probably best just to work it all out on your own.
Luckily, the last three tracks finish the album off strongly, in particular “Art Imitates Life”, with Black Thought, Rah Digga and ALBe. Back guesting. It’s a straight, fun track, and along with “Violations”, my favourite on the record. “Lovers Peak” and “Colors Of You” are both stripped back compared to a lot of the rest of what’s on offer here, and work all the better for it.
Ultimately, this is a record that you want to get behind, but it becomes lost in the unfounded and misplaced setting it’s placed in, both in its content and life outside of the music itself. One thing’s clear, however, and this is probably going to be the most vocal Talib Kweli’s fans are ever going to be about any work he’s ever done, and the feedback is going to be invaluable going forward. The one really great fact to report is that you wouldn’t have realised this record was made in such a relatively short amount of time. Not once did this come to fore when listening to Gravitas, and this being the sixth record in Talib Kweli’s solo career, that’s a really great fact to be able to report.