Musical careers bloom and blossom, wither and falter, completing the full circle. For the great artists though, the nice, budding parts can still take place well after a sustainable catalog is obtained. Therein stands Talib Kweli. Around the world and back again, with numerous projects, singles and guest appearances to cement his legacy, yet he’s still in the middle of sculpting the landscape.
Ever the intellectual without so much as trying, Kweli approaches his Smoking Session as he would any song he appears on: informative, receptive and witty. Learn how and why his new LP Gutter Rainbows came to be, his stance on being pigeonholed vs. being held to great expectations and the last time he somehow sullied a spiritual reckoning.
Yes, the life of Talib Kweli is a simple and complex one, all intertwined for the greater good of Hip-Hop.
TSS: Gutter Rainbows is in full bloom but with the critical acclaim of Revolutions Per Minute, wouldn’t it make sense to be coming out with a Reflection Eternal follow-up?
Talib Kweli: I don’t get that from the fans or anything like that. But you know…the Reflection Eternal album took ten years to come and to be quite honest, it was hard to get people to reconnect with and understand what I wanted and needed to do with Reflection Eternal. I mean I’m very proud of it and I think it’s a great album but a small part of Gutter Rainbows is to let fans know I’m still making music. Because I feel like a lot of them missed RPM. That’s just been my experience.
TSS: Basically so you won’t be slept-on from here on out…
Talib Kweli: Yeah, I mean it’s deeper than not being slept-on. Just having product out there in the market and showing I can tour and feed the fam and stuff.
Prisoners Of Conscious, the record I’m about to start working on, it’s going to be a more creative and experimental project but with Gutter Rainbows, I kind of stuck to what I know best. Not my comfort zone because I don’t feel like I make comfortable music but more so making music I know I’m good at and what the fans want to hear.
TSS: So Gutter Rainbows…is it a glorified mixtape? A souped-up street album exclusive to North America? What’s the basis behind it?
Talib Kweli: I feel like it’s a full album. When people see it as a “street album,” I take that as a compliment because there is street elements to it. When people see it as more musical, I take that as a compliment too because there’s definitely lots of instrumentation on most of the songs. I’m just trying diversify myself with every album.
TSS: I couldn’t help but notice that you touch a bunch of personal topics — “Friends & Family” for example. What propelled you to speak on such matters? That’s like one of the more heartfelt records we’ve heard from you in a minute.
Talib Kweli: The people I mentioned in that song, I felt like deserved mention. Shout out to E. Jones too [on] the beat that made me want to talk about that subject matter, you know? When I heard that refrain in the chorus that kept coming in my head: (sings) “Nothing else matters more than friends and family…” and I just started thinking about people who were there for my career. I’ve been thinking a lot about my place in this game and really wanted the people who may be listening, just really to know what is going into it. Gutter Rainbows is NOT just one album for me. It’s a culmination of experiences that have lead up to this point. And I haven’t done it alone. So it’s important that I recognize people who have been there for me.
TSS: And then you have “I’m On One,” where you kind of flip the peace and just take a slap at everything wack; take shots and all that.
Talib Kweli: Yeah, Khrysis made that track. Those North Carolina boys are on it; I don’t know what’s going on down there. But yeah, there’s nothing else to do on that track but that. I have a remix with CyHi Da Prynce coming on Southern Smoke with DJ Smallz and we just go in even further.
TSS: I remember you telling me a while ago that you like to have complete tracks ready so you can carve and craft out your concepts that way.
Talib Kweli: Yeah, that’s easier for me! Like for Prisoners Of Conscious, I’m going to go on the road and really try to absorb music and try to approach it differently. But certainly Gutter Rainbows…I like when the tracks come ready-made but I like to add my own shit to it too. But for a track like “I’m On One,” I didn’t really add much to it. What you hear is what I heard.
TSS: As far as the title goes, you said it stems from finding and preserving the beautiful in the hideous, i.e. rainbows in the gutters of the streets?
Talib Kweli: Definitely.
TSS: So how is it that you still have that outlook when your situation may be better than the average person.
Talib Kweli: Well, it depends on who the average person is to your perspective. I’m 35-years-old at this point. As a man, I should have a career, be able to pay my bills, feed my family, support my kids—all that should be a no-brainer. So the fact that I’m able to do that through music, I feel blessed to do what I love and live my life. But at the same time, it’s not like I’m ballin’ outta control. It’s not like I’m doing something extra spectacular other than feeding my family. I’m supposed to be doing that. So I don’t look at myself as needing extra props for doing that. But I do understand the secret of life is doing what you love for a living. I do understand that. And I wish more people would do what they love for a living.
TSS: Good point. Well seeing that Talib Kweli is considered this socio-conscious superhero…
Talib Kweli: [Laughs!!!] A superhero!?!
TSS: [Laughs] Yeah, all you need is the “S” on your chest for “social conscious,” let some folks tell it. You know, there’s people who feel like you should adhere to certain way of thinking or approach towards your music. Do you feel like you have the responsibility in Hip-Hop be that guy?
Talib Kweli: Um…yes I do. But in that, understand that I developed that. From the music I put out and how I presented myself. People expect a certain caliber of character. And I have no problem living up to that challenge. I mean it might be stressful to me as a man because you want to have your moments of frailness and weakness and humanness but sometimes you just have to be what you said you was going to be, you know?
TSS: It seems like it even goes even further than that with you. Like you’re required to be on a higher standard. Like that joint you did with Gucci Mane about a year ago. Had that been another big name artist, it probably would have been pacified or what not.
Talib Kweli: Well a track like that and my decision making process on that song, was very easy to defend—for me. And almost so easy that’s it’s fun to defend. I like when people are so pretentious, where they feel like they can engage me in a debate about why I should be doing what I’m doing, and they have never even stepped in this arena to even attempt to do what I’m doing. That’s really no challenge for me, that’s really no mental exercise for me. It’s really just a chance to promote what I’m doing or shit like that [Laughs].
TSS: I’ve seen you engage fans on Twitter who, I guess were maybe perturbed that Gutter Rainbows is exclusively digital in North America.
Talib Kweli: There’s decisions that I have to make as man that have NOTHING to do with someone’s emotional personal aesthetics about music. Like at the end of the day, whether I put the album out on vinyl or digital only, I’m making music for the people. And if you enjoy music for the people; you enjoy Hip-Hop, and you don’t support what I’m doing, that’s your lost, not mine. But as far as the vinyl shit, I’m doing limited edition with Fat Beats for Gutter Rainbows for the vinyl heads, but the real talk reason why Gutter Rainbows is digital only is because when you deal with these realtor’s on a monetary level, they base how they buy your album on your last album’s sales.
In reality, Gutter Rainbows is a small situation. Javoitti Media is a company that just started. 3D is a company Jerod and them just started. There’s only so many outlets and people that’s going to be checking for this album. There’s only so much promotion for this album. So when I come with Blacksmith/EMI which I’m putting Prisoners Of Conscious out on, I don’t want it be a challenge when I go to these retailers for putting my album out in stores. The Best Buy’s or whoever else is going to be around when it’s time to put out Prisoners Of Conscious.
So I want them to look at Eardrum as my last album—not Gutter Rainbows. And that’s a strategic decision I made, not to “cater to my fanbase” or limit myself but to ensure my music gets out to the most amount of people possible. So when the album I’m really spending money on like Prisoners Of Conscious comes out, it’ll be on CD and you can find it everywhere. But people are so shortsighted, they think they’re owed something or entitled to something. Or think they have some sort of say-so into how you release some shit.
TSS: Yeah it just feels like people are quick to open their mouth to say something like that to you instead of someone like Kanye.
Talib Kweli: Yeah, even if I officially announced something like “a CD is a dead format”—which it is—and “I’m not releasing any more music in physical form,” you still shouldn’t be opening your mouth to say no shit like that to me. Because I’ve done released four or five free projects…mixtapes…albums…and I’ve put out seven studio albums for you buy on CD.
TSS: And there was the Idle Warship project, which was free and probably shouldn’t have been.
Talib Kweli: Yep. But you know, that’s just this generation. They feel entitled to music like it belongs to them before it’s even created.
TSS: And I’ve known you’ve spoken on the seesaw relationship of losing and gaining fans per each different project. Did it take any mental training to deal with that sort of thing?
Talib Kweli: Yeah, at the end of the day…you and me get along because of our sensibilities. There’s enough people in the world with the sensibility of just being able to sit back and appreciate music where I can always make a living. I’ve put out enough music on CD and vinyl that if I never made another album again, there’s enough people who support what I do. So I’m not worried about that but I always try and challenge myself with ways I can stay prolific.