Stew (Passing Strange, the Negro Problem) Talks Talib Kweli’s Prisoner of Conscious

I’m on the B41 bus cruising north on Flatbush Avenue through Brooklyn towards my homestead. (Or am I really headed to Peppa’s Jerk Chicken?)

I’m on the B41 bus cruising north on Flatbush Avenue through Brooklyn towards my homestead. (Or am I really headed to Peppa’s Jerk Chicken? We’ll see.)  I’m listening to Brooklyn-born, Park Slope-raised prophet Talib Kweli’s new instigation, Prisoner of Conscious.  I’m pretty out of touch with most things but even I know this is a really good name for a record — it’s super-cool when an album title can tell you what kind of mind-host to expect as you enter his musical domicile.

We are greeted in the vestibule by “Intro,” a recording of our host live at Zuccotti Park in 2011, not in performance mode but rather doing the Occupy “human microphone” call-and-response thing. It lends the record an exciting historical weight while simultaneously giving the proceedings not so much a dated feel, but an oddly melancholy one that is sentimental for me, at least.  I guess it depends on how you feel about the Occupy movement and what it did or didn’t do.

A lot of attention has been paid to Mr. Kweli’s description of the Occupy protests as the “endgame” but I’m far more compelled by these words from his mike check:

I’m at a loss for words… I’M AT A LOSS FOR WORDS…
But even me being at a loss for words… BUT EVEN ME BEING AT A LOSS FOR WORDS…
is amplified… IS AMPLIFIED

I like this. Somehow it speaks to me of the times we live in: even someone at a loss for words is amplified.  Yet, of course, anyone viewing his hang at Occupy would know he was at anything but a loss for words. And with that, it’s on…

I beautifully exude the vibe that’s free of ambiguity

Now I’m in the Brooklyn Central Library cuz his music requires your attention. Had to grab a book to pretend to read so I wouldn’t look like that dude who came to the library just to listen to the album he’s writing about.  I can’t imagine this record as background beats at a party.  OK, the obvious “this could be the hit” type tunes would work in that context but for the most part the cat is saying something and I wanna know what he’s saying and so I should let him say it…

Ya goonery for the sake of goonery
Is cartoons to me
It’s coonery, it’s lunacy…

“Human Mic” is one of the great album openers of all time. The strings are lush and grand — I see Ailey dancers soaring in mid-air to this joint, but there’s also tension and drama in it for days.  It’s a statement of principles, a manifesto of sorts, a shot across the bow aimed at the casual listener and any rapper who dares step to him.

But it’s sick and tragic
how antagonistic we get
when there’s no power
it go sour…

I’m feeling funny cuz I don’t like wearing headphones in public.  Maybe it’s my paranoid LA upbringing.

I seen them crossing the bridge
by the masses
covered in the ashes
of both towers

The son of not one but two college professors (no surprise there), Mr. Kweli sends up so many provocative, thought-provoking flares in the space of one tune — often within one verse — that it’s impossible to let a song go by without wanting to go deeper, as you would in a good conversation with someone you just met at Unnameable Books on Vanderbilt Avenue, which I’m on my way to now, since the library is too stuffy.

I exhibit characteristics  of the average misfit
who graduated from stabbing and grabbing a biscuit

I hate it when people act like artists are request machines but, because it’s such a suggestively compelling idea Mr. Kweli has conjured here, some day I’d love to hear an entire song exploring/comparing/contrasting Mr Kweli and this misfit whose characteristics he exhibits. I’d like to hear about the distance between the two of them, what unites them, and whether they like the same movies.

Popular music
Got ’em confusing
Killers and artists
I kill it the hardest

On “Highlife,” where he’s joined by Rubix and Bajah, Mr. Kweli’s flow is so insanely inventive it sounds “meant to be” — like he was born to rap over this groove. I could listen to a whole record of this.

I’m writing a universe
But the stars don’t fit in my bars
I’m too mega

Hello, braggadocio… such a fundamental part of black man-ness. From Brixton to Nairobi to South Central to the back of that B41 bus I was just on, it’s something we do, something we carry, something we are and something we sometimes must be. Still, I must admit the boasting gets tiring for me after a minute unless it’s funny. It’s all so exhaustingly macho, no?

The flow is a thing of beauty
I’m bringing it, that’s my duty
You drink it in like a smoothie
They spinning it like a sufi

“They spinning it like a sufi” is the greatest line pop music will hear this year. I could not stop laughing at the brilliance of it. Let’s meet in December and if you can show me a better line I’ll buy you a beef patty.

But even when yer “conscious” is there a limit to continually defining oneself as the baddest, most conscious motherfucker on the planet?  I wouldn’t know, but it sure seems like a lot of work. But Talib Kweli is doing work. OT.  Of course, one can show artistic prowess via boasting (which is the point) and Mr. Kweli certainly displays his unparalleled virtuosity all over this record whether he’s rapping about society-in-general, black life, sexy ladies, or…

Now what would Jesus do?
How you believe in him?
You don’t believe in you

“Ready Set Go” features Melanie Fiona doing the obligatory “lady sings the chorus” thing and let me say I would be totally fine if, while shopping at the Key Foods on Flatbush I’m in right now, I could hear this song played over and over rather than the stupid crap they usually play. I’m a sucker for a sweet melodic hook with actual chord changes (as opposed to the ones these days that are just repeated drill sergeant phrases designed to bore themselves into your memory like some low-budget brain-washing technique).  And what fun to get, along with your catchy hook, lyrics like this:

We in the same chains working
The same fields
Now we independent
You can keep your fucking lame deal
Total package, the flow is mastered
I’m going past the procrastinators
So fast it’s like they going backwards

I wanna hear this tune when I’m looking for the unsweetened coconut flakes in Aisle 4.

And then there’s this one…

I’m young Raekwon
mixed with a bit of KRS-One
and Q-Tip, Rakim,
Some of that Ice Cube

That’s easily the strangest boast on the record. I’m not so sure it’s the greatest idea in the world to give your listener the idea to compare you to such giants but, hey, if the game is about swinging, you might as well swing for the parking lot.

Seen the show you know
I make the people move like an eviction notice
I’m focused
I’m like Moses when the mic is on
That’s why these rappers scatter
Like roaches when the light is on

“I make the people move like an eviction notice”???


You’d have to be crazy not to like that line, right?

“Hamster Wheel” and “Delicate Flowers” are painfully moving short stories disguised as songs, about women (and men, ultimately) in difficult situations. I see these women every day on the B41 bus, give up my seat to them and smile at their beautiful babies.  Their lives are tough and they deserve better. They deserve songs like these, for starters, and not the ones describing them as subhumans for male consumption.

Mr. Kweli tells their story painfully, vividly, beautifully. In some way these are the outstanding cuts on the record cuz they, well, stand out i.e., they are not about Mr. Kweli and frankly that’s refreshing. In these pieces he puts his artistic prowess at the service of other folks’ stories and shows himself to not only be a griot of masterful economy, of poetic images that explain and elucidate, but he also comes off sounding like a man who understands. And there’s nothing like a man that understands.


Stew is the writer and co-creator of the Tony Award-winning musical Passing Strange and the singer of the Negro Problem. You can follow him on Twitter here.