To gain an appreciation of Talib Kweli's contribution to hip-hop, it's instructive to compare his career to former Black Star partner Mos Def. Since 1998's Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star, Mos Def has released only five solo albums (including his latest), frequently disappearing from the scene amid regular concert tours, scant MP3s and acidly political Twitter posts. He has nurtured a mystique that makes us view him as the same indie iconoclast of nearly two decades ago. But in addition to his solo albums, Talib Kweli has filled his catalog with two collaborations with producer Hi-Tek as Reflection Eternal, a project with Madlib, and an eccentric soul album with Res as Idle Warship, in addition to sundry mixtapes and cameo appearances. His lyrical tics and sonic evolutions are on display for us to see.
Throughout his career, Kweli has both embraced and chafed against the notion that he's a paragon of virtue, hence the title of his new album, Prisoner of Conscious. He has weathered the rap intelligentsia's claims that "no one listens to Kweli anymore" by sustaining a sizable audience that belies a limited perspective of what's relevant in the culture. They want him to live and die as a symbol of the late '90s underground-rap movement. But Kweli continues to experiment (albeit carefully) with more than just typical backpacker beats, from working with N.Y.C. street-rap hero Harry Fraud on his new album to mentoring L.A. hardcore group Strong Arm Steady. More importantly, he keeps making music, exposing himself and his art to our praise and criticism. The sheer quality of this playlist, balanced between classic golden-era Kweli and choice cuts from his later years, demonstrates that he's still on the right path.