Lyrical craftsman mixes it up

By Paula Yeoman

Artist happy with three-year album project, writes Paula Yeoman

American hip-hop artist Talib Kweli. Photo / Supplied
American hip-hop artist Talib Kweli. Photo / Supplied

American hip-hop artist Talib Kweli wants to lose his "conscious rap" label. Talib Kweli has never been short of words. He is considered one of hip-hop's lyrical leaders; a storyteller who steers clear of tales of gangs and guns in favour of messages with a socio-political bent.

So it's surprising to find a quiet Kweli at the other end of the phone just days before the much-hyped release of his new album Prisoner of Conscious. A barely audible phone line and frustrating long-distance delays don't help the situation. But what is clear from the outset is that the Brooklyn-born rapper is pretty chuffed with his fifth offering.

And fair enough. He is one of the most consistently good emcees around and Prisoner of Conscious delivers solid, meat-and-potatoes hip-hop.

As the title suggests, this is Kweli's attempt at breaking free of the "conscious rap" label that has followed him throughout his career. But he explains that doesn't mean he's no longer making thought-provoking music - there is just more of the personal mixed with the political.

It's no secret that Kweli has spent a painstaking three years getting this album just so. He was already talking about it when he put out his last record Gutter Rainbows in 2011. But he disappointed fans late last year when he pushed its release date back by several months.

"I was working on most of these tracks before Gutter Rainbows. But I was just taking my time. I spent time on getting them to where I wanted them," he says.

But he insists he is not a perfectionist.

"I don't believe in perfection. I believe in quality. I believe in mastering the craft. Practice. Do it over and over again. Be ambitious and put the time in."

The veteran rapper rattles off a bunch of hip-hop artists he considers inspirational - Kanye West and Jay-Z included. But he says he also seeks lyrical inspiration from other genres too: "Smokey Robinson, Quincy Jones, Paul McCartney. They inspire me."

Kweli says there is no real key to success in the highly competitive hip-hop scene but he has words of wisdom for the scores of young up-and-coming artists that look to him for guidance: "Do your own thing. Find your own voice. Enjoy it."

Talib Kweli's new album Prisoner of Conscious is out now.

- Herald on Sunday

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