For over a decade, Talib Kweli has tried, to mixed success, a variety of sounds. Nearly a decade and a half removed from his introduction, the Brooklyn mainstay remains a sharp lyricist who goes unafraid of calling out social institutions, wack rappers and critics alike. Still, the Black Star/Reflection Eternal emcee wants the world to know that he can have a good time, and recent albums have found Kweli with a smile. Gutter Rainbows, Talib's first independent release in several years finds him both celebrating and analyzing, all over some production that's new to the portfolio.
Kweli kicks it off with “After the Rain,” a flute-laced intro courtesy of 88-Keys, who, 13 years after “Thieves in the Night,” continues to make a case that he ought to be one of Kweli’s go-to producers, even though the Brooklyn emcee doesn’t spit a single bar on the cut. Fans hoping for more Idle Warship get two-thirds of the group, as the always-involved Res comes in to croon on the the soulful “So Low.” After the relatively smooth cut, Kweli kicks in the door with “Palookas” , which features Sean Price. The beat is an absolute monster, as Price and Talib enter vicious verses over Marco Polo’s menacing drums, keys and xylophones that sound like they could’ve come from DJ Premier’s recording session for “Above the Clouds.” Spits Kwe: “My music represent the change in powers / From now on this thing is ours / Got us paintin’ war instead of paintin’ flowers / They shower their heroes with praise, that’s why we hangin’ ours / We bring the drums to the battle because we bang the loudest / You don’t know a thing about it, if you mixing King and Malcolm / Bet you that Kweli the outcome / Album so hot that my ghetto chicks is bringing talcum / Whether you sing or shout it / They gave someone else the crown but I’m the king without it.”
“Wait For You” and “Ain’t Waiting” continue to explore the piano-lounge style on display on the album’s earlier tracks, though “Cold Rain” is a little more hard-hitting with more pronounced percussion, and more than a twinge of sadness in the notes and subject matter. “Uh Oh” is a strange but enjoyable departure from the sound of the album. Jean Grae continues to showcase her considerable personality and presence on the mic as she and Kweli exchange verses over an over-the-top-sinister organ-laced track that’s instantly super villain status. “Self Savior” brings the album to a close, and does an excellent job of bringing Gutter Rainbows’ laid back sound back to the forefront with a slick verse from Chace Infinite and light piano keys and a touch of sax.
Gutter Rainbows is a fairly easy spin, and can go into the listener’s steady rotation in a pinch. That being said, this feels a bit like a subdued version of Eardrum. Gutter Rainbows has moments that show Kweli's enduring songwriting brilliance, as heard in "Cold Rain," but it also has songs that appear to lack much concept or premise. The Duck Down and Blacksmith guests punctuate the artistic independence, and call back to the artist's first two solo releases. In total, it’s a tight, cohesive package, but Gutter Rainbows is lacking the highs of Kweli’s last two releases.