Talib Kweli’s Prisoner of Conscious is a play on both his own reputation as a socially conscious rapper and on the term “prisoner of conscience” created by Peter Buchanan in his 1961 London Observer article “The Forgotten Prisoners.” That article became a rallying cry of sorts for organizations committed to eliminating imprisonment based on race, religion, or political views. Kweli is well known for his politics, having been a vocal contributor to the Occupy Wall Street movement, while keeping his Twitter followers abreast of his latest social causes. But, the ‘socially conscious rapper’ tag can be a jail in itself, and Prisoner of Conscious sees Kweli pushing against those walls, creating an album that is a mix of the personal and the political.
Of course, Kweli’s not the first to go this route, but he blazes his own path by staying true to his roots. Opener “Human Mic” has a solid beat and a nice string background that feels appropriate with the lyrics. Kweli himself sounds invigorated by the proceedings, throwing out lines that bounce with the rhythm of his song. “Turn It Up” continues this trend, featuring a nice old school beat along with Kweli’s superior flow.
Kweli doesn’t go it completely alone. While his Black Star partner Mos Def is noticeably absent from the proceedings, there are plenty of singers and rappers to add a verse or line. Miguel shows up on “Come Here” bringing his deft touch to the ’70s style production and classic feel of the song. It’s one of the album’s highlights, with Kweli maneuvering around Miguel’s vocals as only a pro should. Elsewhere, Kendrick Lamar and Curren$y show up on “Push Thru,” bringing the new age of socially and critically acclaimed hip hop to Kweli’s world. Both artists give a solid performance on the track, with each individual having their chance to shine.
But, not all of these guest appearances are worthwhile. “Before He Walked” features Nelly and some cringe worthy lyrics from Kweli. “Rocket Shop” brings in Native Tongues alum Busta Rhymes, but even he can’t save a song that barely lifts off. The last quarter of the album, which features both of the aforementioned songs, is where Prisoner of Conscious loses its focus. Where the first portion of the album flows, hitting the personal and political, the end is just a dud, with some truly odd flourishes such as the strange repeat of “girls have feelings” on “Delicate Flowers” or the robotic phrasing of “it’s the upper echelon shit” on the aptly titled “Upper Echelon.”
Talib Kweli manages to break out of the some of the trappings of the conscious rapper without losing himself on Prisoner of Conscious. But, the album is too all over the place to really be looked at as a cohesive work on par with his earlier classics. It’s not a major misstep like Common’s Universal Mind Control, but it’s plagued by inconsistency after it reaches the halfway point. That said, there’s enough here to make the album a decent listener, though longtime fans may find themselves wanting more from their favorite MC.