Talib Kweli fans know almost exactly what they’re getting when they listen to a new record from the Brooklyn MC. Over 20 years into his career, he’s never been one to change his formula too much. On every project, Talib typically brings his lyrical, politically-charged conscious style of rap, often over soulful and jazzy production. Some of his peers such as Common and Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def) have moved into other lanes like acting or have experimented with the formulas in their music a bit, but Talib seems to be fine sticking more or less to his formula with the occasional switch-up.
While the messages and even sound have remained relatively consistent throughout Talib Kweli’s career, the overall quality of his records has varied. Although he’s never delivered a flat-out bad release, a good deal of Talib’s more recent work feels inconsequential, especially compared to the classics he dropped in the first leg of his career. Radio Silence, Kweli’s eighth solo album and second project of the year after The Seven with Styles P, sees the veteran spitter getting back on track.
It’s evident right away on the opening track, “The Magic Hour,” that Talib isn’t messing around or complacent. Over strings and soulful voices that would sound welcome on any of his classic Rawkus Records albums, the MC goes in for a solid two minutes and change. There’s no hook and he doesn’t pause to let that beat ride for a bit; it’s just business as usual for Talib. “Bap bap bap like staccato/I spit it like I just finished gargling the velocity marvelous/Get your goggles we hit it at full throttle/I’m praying for a better tomorrow/My candle is burning slow as Cubanos/I’m seeing red like Ricky Ricardo,” he spits.
The most powerful song on the album comes two tracks later as Talib Kweli teams up with singer Yummy Bingham and the ever-elusive rapper Jay Electronica to pen an anthem dedicated to the Black men and women disrespected by society and especially police. Talib and Yummy send the song out to “the mothers (they neglected)/To the fathers (they rejected)/To the sisters (disrespected)/To the brothers (unprotected)/All of us.” As always, Jay Electronica is a revelation as a featured guest and will continue to frustrate rap fans who are still waiting for him to drop a project.
Speaking of guests, Radio Silence features one of the most unique and eclectic groups of collaborators you can find this year. The always-hype Waka Flocka Flame shows up on “Chips,” while underground legend Myka 9 appears on the title track. Those two rappers are so drastically different in their styles that they could barely seem like they’re part of the same genre of music. Talib put them on the same album. Anderson .Paak is as breezy as ever on the Kaytranada-produced “Traveling Light,” and Rick Ross gets as introspective as the boss can get on “Heads Up Eyes Open.” BJ The Chicago Kid, Amber Coffman, Bilal and more round out the guest list for the project.
Radio Silence does have more variety than just politically-conscious boom bap. “The One I Love” with BJ The Chicago Kid is a straight-up love song that goes into more R&B territory without sacrificing Talib’s bars. “Chips” shifts into a more trap style with frantic horns on the beat to complement Waka Flocka Flame, who seems to be on a mission to prove he can hang with the lyrical greats. “Write at Home” features a more spoken word style over Robert Glasper’s keys and Bilal’s crooning.
Those experiments unfortunately are the weaker tracks on the album. They show that Talib Kweli’s resistance to changing too much in his career is the right move. Trap and R&B love songs just aren’t as much in his wheelhouse as when he stands on his podium and speaks more to society’s ills. There’s stuff to like on those tracks, but Talib just sounds a bit out of place on them.
Radio Silence is still a more-than-worthy addition to the Talib Kweli canon. In fact, it’s probably his best record since his last project with Hi-Tek as Reflection Eternal in 2010. He’ll likely never reach the heights of albums such as Mos Def and Talib Kweli Are Black Star or Quality again, but Radio Silence proves that his voice is much needed and breaks through the noise.
See New Music Releases for December 2017