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5/19/2010

The Arts

The way we were
Time has weakened Talib Kweli’s blow

 

Reflection Eternal (Talib Kweli and Hi-Tek)
Revolutions Per Minute
(Warner Bros.)

At the turn of the millennium, rapper Talib Kweli and producer DJ Hi-Tek joined forces as Reflection Eternal. Together, they birthed 2000’s Train of Thought, an inspirational conscious-rap touchstone as seminal in its own right as Midnight Marauders or 3 Feet High and Rising or whichever Roots disc you care to name. Tangling together knotty, knowing rhymes full of stressed syllables, casual bravado, when-in-Rome-profanity and a kinetic positivity, Kweli preached virtuoso hip-hop progressivism-by-example over Hi-Tek’s warm, granola soul-funk grottos and head-knocking drums, decrying chart-hop‘s shallowness and materialism while offering a viable alternative. Better yet, the duo sold Train as a block party soundtrack, inviting Dave Chappelle to do impressions (Gil Scott-Heron, Rick James, Nelson Mandela, you name it), tossing the mic to Mos Def and Rah Digga for inspired turns and floating ethereal instrumentals that heightened the mood while maintaining the overall flow.

What a difference a decade makes. The duo’s follow-up, 

Revolutions Per Minute, registers as a calculated, of-the-moment product, a de-centered aesthetic free-for-all. (Chappelle is absent this time around; instead, comic relief is limited to a bunch of silly Lyor Cohen imitations.) The intoxicating Blue-Note “Just Begun” – which will have surpassed mixtape critical mass by the time you read this sentence – is an example of the amorphously poly-sci vibe Minute should have aimed for all along, with Mos Def, Jay Electronica and J. Cole dropping in to spit sharp, sticky science. 

But Hi-Tek throws paradigm after shiny paradigm at his partner: tinny ringtone pap, post-Timbaland E.T. bounce and what sounds like a pale imitation of Billy Joel’s “Tell Her About It” (“Get Loose”). And what they get right – “Ballad of the Black Gold” as African-history Cliff Notes; “Lifting Off” making anti-drug rhetoric feel almost hep – is sabotaged by what remains of Kweli’s rap cadence. 

That once mighty (if dispassionate) flow was an expertly wielded ball-peen hammer. The years have worn it down to a floundering corkscrew; a swollen ego and lazier, more superficial lyricism don’t help. Hapless sloganeering plus lack of presence make for a dull disc; no matter how hard Hi-Tek works to animate the proceedings, Kweli’s raps won’t stick, and we’re left with well-meaning ephemera that doesn’t cohere as an album-length statement. Beguiling Motown flounce “Midnight Hour” and chime-y health-care rant “Strangers (Paranoid)” are, respectively, more of an Estelle spotlight and Bun B showcase special than anything else; they’re the center of gravity, while Kweli barely registers.

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