When Talib Kweli debuted as half of Brooklyn duo Black Star in 1998, the motor-mouthed politico to Mos Def's sing-song spiritualist, his crisp delivery of clever and verbose battle raps earned him the "conscious rapper" label, a niche he's inhabited uncomfortably on four subsequent solo records. Throughout the aughts he tried out top-tax bracket production, scoring with cross-over beats by the likes of Kanye West ("Get By"), The Neptunes ("Broken Glass") and Will.i.am ("Hot Thing"). But the mainstream sound never quite fit, and the self-released Gutter Rainbows—his first album since 2007's solid, sprawling Eardrum—has Talib sounding like his 24-year-old self on a half-dozen indie beats amidst several airy throwaways. On balance, happily, the record is more gutter than rainbow.
The mandatory thesis-statement track lands during the stronger second half, where Talib pours breathless verses over Ski Beatz's piano and choir loops on "Cold Rain": "With the shootin' and thuggin'/and all the booning and spooning/all the crooning and cooning and auto-tuning, the lies/you be tellin', and peddlin' to consumers/I'm helpin' â€˜em see through it/get with this new movement." Another lighting-quick song, the gloomy narrative "Tater Tot," with its Western-evoking Nick Speed beat and road trip shootout climax, and the dark romance "How You Love Me," are top-notch Talib, while Jean Grae just about steals the album with her marathon verse on penultimate track "Uh Oh." Sadly, frivolities like the jet-set diary "Mr. International" and industry airing-of-grievances "Friends and Family" keep Gutter Rainbows from shining end to end.