Hip Hop lost one of its greats last month in Keith “Guru” Elam. Long before Guru passed, Hip Hop lost one of its greatest groups, Gang Starr. Gang Starr was a duo that abided by the traditional formula of the emcee and the deejay/producer, side-by-side creating music. Ten years ago, Reflection Eternal [Talib Kweli and DJ Hi-Tek] became that middle management collaboration of emcee & deejay that stood in the hopes of furthering that same Gang Starr formula that originated 30-plus years ago. Ultimately, both groups came to a screeching halt – Gang Starr due to politics and emotions, Reflection Eternal due to the desire for solo projects. Truth be told, Hi-Tek and Kweli weren’t even a group per se, but with their arguably flawless 2000 debut Train of Thought, the hope of making them one was eminent. Now, close to a decade later, Kweli and Hi-Tek return with Revolutions Per Minute, a now major label work that displays the evolution of both the emcee and the deejay and the desire to once again keep them together.
In a certain respect, Revolutions Per Minute is a concept album, paying homage to the almighty RPM of vinyl plus the double meaning of the Earth spinning on its axis. RPM is laced with social commentary that has now become a signature trait for Kweli, not unlike rappers like Boots Riley (The Coup) and Black Thought (The Roots) who can make messages in the midst of entertainment. Late last year, R.E. dropped their mixtape titled The RE:Union. Mixed by Statik Selektah, The RE:Union hosted several tracks now found on Revolutions Per Minute, including the soulful “Just Begun” with Jay Electronica, Mos Def and J. Cole, and the dark “In This World” . “Just Begun” is a posse cut not unlike the Rah Digga and Xzibit assisted “Down For the Count” on Train of Thought, only less braggadocious and more skillful. The winner in this cypher is Jay Electronica, whose spine-tingling potential for fame bleeds through his lines like “I just wanna go to the slum and throw my money on the floor like the notorious bum / Build a home, teach a class, start a revolution / Free the mind, heal the body, talkin’ evolution.” Kweli also collaborated with fellow Idle Warship cohort Res on “Back Again”, featured on both RE:Union and RPM (Res was also part of Train of Thought on the epic “Too Late”).
Outside of what the mixtape offered first, RPM contains its fair share of jewels. “Strangers (Paranoid)” lags in the beginning despite the infectious horns, but Kweli gains momentum in just enough time for Bun B to cleanup the track. Other songs like “Midnight Hour” (with Estelle) and “Get Loose” (with Chester French) offer Kweli’s obvious growth in melding genres with his lyrics (probably due in part to Idle Warship). The rest like “Ballad Of the Black Gold” and “Long Hot Summer” (reworked sample for Jay-Z’s “Dear Summer”) are reminiscent of Train of Thought in their hard-hitting simplicity. Just as he did a decade ago on “The Blast,” Hi-Tek checks in to drop a verse on “So Good”. The chemistry between Hi-Tek and Kweli is undeniable. Perhaps it’s because they don’t work confined to a formal group or maybe they’re just that good. Either way, Revolutions Per Minute is exciting even up to the mellowed Outro “My Life”, where Kweli still spits with meaning “Fans tellin’ me I’m underappreciated, underrated and hated, but he’s thankful they debate it / Thankful that he made it, the glory was somethin’ fated / Thankful that he keep it so real when some fake it / Thankful for the skills’ that’s keepin’ the family stable / Thankful for the meals he put on the family table.”
It’s not everyday that a pair of talented musicians vow to return together to make lightening strike twice…and actually mean it. With Reflection Eternal back in the fold with Revolutions Per Minute, waiting another 10 years for their next album will seem impossible.