Talib Kweli: Rap not ‘talent-based game right now’

cnn@tri-statedefender.com | 7/3/2013, 12:20 a.m.

"I have kids, and I feel like there are a lot of young people listening to hip-hop, and they need to hear both sides of it," the married father of two said, adding that if one segment of rap music wants to revel in the negative, "I'm going to say something that I feel is relevant to right now, try to provide you with a balance. I'm a Libra. I believe in balance."

Kweli's new album, "Prisoner of Conscious," is named after the term coined to describe those jailed for their race or ideas. But don't get caught up in the shout-outs to Azerbaijani activist Tural Abbasli, Iranian human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, various Black Panthers and other prisoners around the world.

While Kweli feels a kinship with imprisoned Russian punk rockers Pussy Riot and others "who make art that resists against systems of repression," it's not what he's getting at with the album title.

Not just a lyricist

Say Talib Kweli to a hip-hop head and it won't likely conjure club bangers. It might not conjure music. Kweli is a pure lyricist – smart, provocative, political and too rarely noted for his melody. As Jay-Z once rhymed in a backhanded compliment, "If skills sold, truth be told, I'd probably be, lyrically, Talib Kweli."

The Brooklyn-born rhymesmith takes umbrage with the idea he's a words-only artist. Kweli is quick to emphasize he's worked with top producers, including DJ Quik, the late J. Dilla, Pete Rock and Kanye West.

"I feel like I've worked with the best in the business and that's what's added to what I do. It's not just the lyrics," he said. "I think this might be my least lyrical album, I don't know, because the music was forefront for me on 'Prisoner of Conscious.' That's really what my focus is. I'm a musician at the end of the day."

Which may explain why "POC" is more radio-friendly than his last album, "Gutter Rainbows." Production assists from J. Cole and Wu-Tang's RZA don't hurt, and other current and former hitmakers such as Kendrick Lamar, Busta Rhymes and Nelly appear on the mic. But Kweli says he wasn't digging for a chart topper.

"It was in sync with the theme of the album that I can do whatever I want to do. I'm not really a prisoner of any bias. ... It wasn't like, 'Oh, because Kendrick's hot.' I just try to choose artists that I really like and that I have a real good relationship with," he said, noting that the track with Lamar, "Push Thru," was made two years ago.

Releasing the album on his Javotti Media label afforded Kweli another luxury: time. Four years of it. He started work on "POC" when Lamar was still K-Dot.

"I approached it like, 'OK, this album's going to come out and it doesn't have to be on a schedule.' I can just work on it until I feel like it's done," he said

Most of his five solo and four collaboration albums took about a year, though "Gutter Rainbows" took three months, "Liberation" took a week and "Train of Thought" took about two years.