Hip-hop. Intelligent conscious hip-hop. I try to tell myself I still like it. “I do,” said my intelligent conscience. “I still have time for you, my intelligent conscious hip-hop,” I tell myself even while I lived through my own trials and tribulations regarding jobs, career, and relationships. And entertainingly, I watch conscious rappers complaining about Jews running rap music and rhyming about corners and spirituality – all the while screwing video hos, and confused big booty divas, and having multiple kids out of wedlock.
However, as we grew up, we learned to discern. We understand that hip-hop, as real, blunt, beautiful, honest, and soulful to my generation; we learned that at the end of the day, hip-hop is entertainment, and even conscious rappers need to eat and fuck. Talib gets this too. He addressed this in the The Beautiful Struggle, Eardrum, various mixtapes, and here on Prisoner of Conscious.
As we grow older, our taste becomes more refined, but at the same time – simpler. Musically, similar to our relationships, we need music and lyrics which are soulful, relatable, and easy to like. Thoughtfulness helps but depth for the sake of being deep, words and philosophy for the sake of intelligence are not needed. Complexity, even if it is beautiful, is something to run completely away from.
Well, Talib is still Talib, and there lies the problem. Prisoner of Conscious is the Talib we all know and love, even if we don’t listen to him that much anymore. All the clever and intelligent word play, similes, and metaphors are all over the album. Talib runs circles around 98 percent of MCs/rappers out there, even if no one is listening. “Human Mic” and “Turnt Up” are classic Talib with intelligent word play, classic hip-hop braggadocio filled with a consciousness regarding social issues. These songs also become joyless after the third listen. “Come Here” is the typical required hip-hop love ballad that sounds more tired than a 400 meter runner trying to run a marathon. “Ready Set Go” is generic hip-hop with an R&B diva sung chorus. The featured guests on “Push Thru” are more impressive than the actual result of the song.
All these aforementioned songs are sonically competent and the rhymes/lyrics are thoughtful most of the time, but they are not an enjoyable listen.
The album finally shines when it gets soulful (yes, it took 8 tracks into the album for soul and emotion to hit) with the melancholy story of “Hamster Wheel” and the relationship perspective of “Delicate Flowers.” “Rocket Ships” featuring Busta Rhymes is a horrible battle rhyme anthem that tries too hard. “The shit is drugs,” Talib said in the beginning of the song. No, I disagree. If drugs were this awful, I would have never tried any of it.
“Before He Walked” is a decent track of hip-hop spirituality. Nelly sounds honest, as he always does, whether he is talking about models, the struggle, or the bleakness of St. Louis. Talib’s verse about the Fugees is also thought provoking. However, the underwhelming production doesn’t quite match the lyrics. “Upper Echelon” is forgettable, and “Favela Love” would have been better as an instrumental with a hook.
The last track of the album is the reason why we still respect and listen to Talib, even if it is not repeated listens. “It Only Gets Better” is soulful even with Marsha Ambrosius’ oversinging. The lyrics reflect and provoke through without being too self righteous. It is that damn good Talib song we want to hear every two years to remind us that hip-hop has not lost its mind or its soul. However, these moments are few and far between because it feels like hip-hop has lost one or the other, including this solid if mostly soulless hip-hop record.
Good metaphors, similes, and word play just don’t do it anymore with or without a conscience. S*it even Drake can make bullshit sounds clever. Talib sounds great, but the emotions, soul, and reliability are often lost as he spent most of his time straddling the lines between palatable songs of different audiences and early 2000s battle rhymes that are more out of place than an Asian guy with a Black girl. Maybe Talib’s effort is just a reflection of life, compromises that makes no one happy. Then again, maybe it’s me, Talib. It is not you. It’s me.