Reflection Eternal: “Revolutions per Minute”

Any doubts as to Talib Kweli’s skills on the mic were basically put to rest in 2003, when Jay Z himself namechecked the man on his Black Album, holding up Kweli as a sort of lyrical ideal. It seemed a slightly odd collision of worlds then, and it still does so today. Kweli does a bit of namechecking on his new Reflection Eternal album, Revolutions per Minute, and in this case it makes a little more sense; he doesn’t return the favor to Jigga, but he does give a nod to Common, The Roots, and his old Black Star partner Mos Def.

That feels about right. Kweli fits in with that group of hip-hop vets who have, for the most part, resisted the allure of modern rap trends, instead forging their own, personal takes on hip-hop that is socially aware, historically-minded yet still forward-thinking. In fact, Kweli’s artistry may be the purest of them all. He’s one of those MCs who never allows himself to become flashy or trendy enough to really blow up, yet his rhyming– existing totally outside the hip-hop mainstream as it does– seems to represent the culture’s conscience, the purity of its essence, making it feel necessary. Even if we are only occasionally reminded of Kweli’s genius– every few years or so, when he puts out a new record– it is nevertheless comforting to know that it’s always there.

It’s probably unsurprising, then, that his return to recording after a three-year absence is met with relatively little fanfare, least of all from the man himself. He spends little of Revolutions per Minute trumpeting his own return to the game, though his skills on the mic leave little doubt that he could be in the upper ranks of battle MCs if he really wanted to be. He doesn’t pay much mind to current rap trends, either, though there’s a moment here and a moment there that suggest he could light up the clubs were he not so burdened by his own conscience. So he spends pretty much the whole record rapping about politics– be that the politics of Big Oil or the politics of the music industry. He carries the weight of hip-hop’s social awareness dutifully; as one song puts it, he’s got work to do.

His Reflection Eternal partner is Hi-Tek, a producer who may as well be dubbed this generation’s DJ Premier; he borrows from old jazz and soul albums with striking minimalism, creating tracks that are open and leaving his MC plenty of room the breathe. These are not the lavish, luxurious soul-sampling tracks that you’d hear coming from Kanye West. These are spare beats where the samples are integrated seamlessly into the spirit and theme of the lyrics– note the particularly brilliant incorporation of a gospel sample into “In This World.” The duo doesn’t seem too concerned with debunking the old knock that these socially-conscious hip-hop records don’t bump enough for the dancefloor. This is hip-hop for the head, and there’s arguably no one who does it better.

To be fair, the album does have one ringtone-ready, club banger– a hot single with Estelle called “Midnight Hour,” which almost sounds like it could be an Amy Winehouse song with its retro soul vibe. It’s a killer track that sticks out like a sore thumb here, but in its own way it underscores how masterful the album is, particularly in its control of mood and tone on all the other tracks. The song also highlights the duo’s firm command of the hi-hop lexicon, how they are able to play with both classic tropes and current trends, alternating between homage and subversion. The album opens with the old classroom intro that’s been done to death on so many hip-hop records, it comes across as the worst of all possible cliches– until the rest of the album unfolds with such a rich sense of history, you begin to think that the intro is a very deliberate tribute to the icons of the past. The rest of the album finds Kweli and Hi-Tek stretching at hip-hop tropes like it’s Silly Putty in their hands, sometimes with real invention (see “Got Work,” a clever, dark inversion of the standard “hip-hop as a woman” metaphor; also, “Just Begun,” a smokin’ hot take on the posse cut that features killer verses from both Jay Electronica and Mos Def) and sometimes with just the right touch of irreverence (there are a couple of interludes that cheekily mock the hardcore gangsta lifestyle, to sincerely funny results).

But to write this off as a stuffy history lesson would be a grave error. In truth, what it is is the sound of two pros who are having a blast remaking hip-hop conventions in their own image; and it really is fun, lofty lyrics or not, whether the duo is channeling their message through outlets of real invention (“Ballad of the Black Gold” is a topical song that happens to sound pretty far removed from anything anyone else is doing in hip-hop right now) or simply getting loose, as one song title puts it. This is sturdy hip-hop, which may not sound particularly exciting, but in reality it’s quite a gem: There’s no flash or gimmick here, just a thoughtful, inventive, and thoroughly playable rap album that’s built to last.

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