With the immediate promise of old-school Hip Hop excellence attached to Talib Kweli’s name, and that the title of one of his most recent projects instantly calls to mind the timelessness and melodic, soulful and substance fueled poetry of Kweli’s first full-length endeavor, the legendary High-Tek produced Train of Thought, who released the recording under the name of Reflection Eternal, from 1998: the near forty-year old Brooklyn representative unleashed his first collection of material recorded throughout the years. With most of what is included herein never being officially released, Train of Thought: Lost Lyrics, Rare Releases & Beautiful B-Sides Vol. 1., which sports impressive cover artistry, was released as a free download on July 7th of 2015.
The ten track, thirty-nine minute LP is a testament to the ferocity of lyricism over largely elegant and wonderfully old-school production. It is guaranteed to make us pine for the days when the quality of the artist was in the regime of his or her bars and not the flash attached to the individual’s name or its ability to conform. Such is a subject Kweli has often spoken about, often concocting entire songs on our materialistic culture (most evident in his latest eleven track work of sonic brilliance F*ck the Money), and every time he unleashes music, whether it is something fresh out of the studio or something aged like a fine wine that we may have never heard before, it is a reason to celebrate. Train of Thought: Lost Lyrics, Rare Releases & Beautiful B-Sides Vol. 1 is far from an exception to that statement and it is, in true Kweli fashion, a purely insightful and cerebrally invigorating experience that gives us as much for the ear as for the soul.
The album opens with Dave West’s simple, but calm and gorgeous, tune fabrication on the brief (it runs a mere one minute and fifty seven seconds), but fantastic, “Space”. The track consists of one tremendous verse from Kweli and an impressively intriguing outro, which is a perfect set-up for an album is it discourses on the power of knowledge and work to guide the masses to where they want to be in life, and an emotionally riveting outro simultaneously concerning giving the artist his room and unity. This works so well because of how much is said with both the economical beat (all of it is wrapped around the idea of giving Kweli his necessary room), song length and because of the sheer strength of Kweli’s lyricism.
Considering the fiery, vigorous and aggressive sermon on how technology is making us more subservient which hammers home the last three plus minutes of the album over No. ID’s massively impressive sound construction on “Distraction” it is showcased, through the aforementioned tune and “Space” and their opposing sonic dynamics, how Kweli can make just as much of an influence regardless of the tone set by the background. Both jingles are personal anthems of sorts and they prove to be the perfect opening and closing notes for Train of Thought: Lost Lyrics, Rare Releases and Beautiful B-Sides Vol. 1 respectively.
Much of the majority of this effort is Kweli in intellectual battle Rap mode. With the joining of forces over Hi-Tek’s tremendously affective piano loop on the trademark underground, early 1990’s sound and incredibly verbose stylings of the beautiful “2000 Seasons”. His astonishing control of diction, imagery and metaphors especially, are as impressive as ever on this tune, the second in the placement of the track list. When the duo of Kweli and Hi-Tek unite again in the eighth track in the LP, “Fortified Live” (featuring solid, thoughtful lyrical showcases from Yasiin Bey and Mr. Man) the results are just as stunning and electric.
This is principally true on, “Bright as the Stars”, (put together by Ayatollah with exuberance and wit) a previously unreleased track from Kweli’s pairing with Mos Def under the moniker of Black Star. With a chant-like refrain by its two artists, this giant inhalation of unfiltered Hip Hop is propelled primarily by the duo’s lyrical energy alone to become an instantly classic rhyme- fest. The charisma between Kweli and Mos Def is as gripping, and palpable, and ever and the song screams of the late 1990’s, when it can be presumed to have been recorded, when social conscience was at the forefront of the Rap genre. The tune is guaranteed to induce nostalgia and it is all the more triumphant, and welcome, because of how phenomenally it presents its listeners with the aforementioned impression.
The raw vigor, and hungry emcee drive, present on “Bright as the Stars” is only matched by the pairing of Kweli and the aggressive growl of Killah Mike’s commanding inflection and razor sharp lyricism on the second to the last track, “Tryin’ to Breathe” (which sports excellent, undeniably head-nodding production from Midi Mafia). The hammering bass turns the commonplace idea of “Being from a place where real is real”, as the catchy refrain informs us, and illuminates it with an air of genuine authenticity and a fresh perspective of honest experience. “Bright as the Stars” and “Tryin’ to Breathe” are both phenomenal examples of Kweli’s charisma on the microphone and the appearance of viable camaraderie evident with nearly every one he shares the limelight with on a tune.
“Wack ….” features a wonderful verbal turn guest rappers from Chicago legend Common and Queens, New York representative Consequence, but it becomes momentarily deflated by Kanye West’s usual sixteen bar bout of ego, self-righteousness and glimmers of homophobia. West’s production is serviceable, though it does bring to mind the spirit of disrespectful ditties aimed towards no specifically mentioned individual which are meant to be more of a fun push on the shoulder than the brutal knock-out that we have become accustomed to in such a stylized Hip Hop tune. Kweli is the hands down highlight on this track.
When Kweli pairs with Res, who provides a stalwart and smart verse, on the vibrant, jazzy DJ Quick produced seventh track, “7:30”, the results are similar to “Wack …” in that both ditties becomes overall winners for the way they embrace the essence of many rhyme- fests before it. This is in spite of the fact that the general air is a bit more conventional than the tracks the two songs are paired up with on this LP.
With a welcome chorus that gently reminds us of the immortal slogan “Quality over quantity”, “Boomerang”, the fifth track, far exceeds the average rhyme spree on wax by utterly deconstructing this attitude for the excessive in all respects that has currently taken over the Rap genre. This subject is powerfully expanded upon, and because of such made all the more impactful, as Kweli and guest rhymers NIKO and Cory Mo talk about the abuse of the craft of the art and the “Vultures of the culture” (as Kweli himself so potently puts it) who need to be reminded of the message in the refrain with the high caliber, intelligent bars on display. Returning to the cool, calm vibe established in the first three tracks this is another exhibition of both Kweli’s skill and the power of Rap when stripped of the self-worth it rarely seems willing to shed nowadays.
“Ocean Song”, from Kweli’s disjointed The Cathedral Mixtape from 2014, presents illuminating and smooth track assembly from Rahki and is an immortal example of a beautiful love song. Sadly, it is the only one of its type found herein, which makes it explode with Kweli’s trademark form of honesty and honesty composed banter all the more remarkably. Going into a deeply introspective zone, in a manner that easily recalls his ardent ballad Talk to You (Lil Darling) from his brilliant 2002 LP Quality, Kweli takes a break from the fervent blows on the state of our culture resonating throughout the LP, to give us an example of the artist at his most poetic. Over an ardent, gripping and serenely appealing melody the ballad is accompanied by comparably stirring vocals from Mela Mechinko. This downtempo bit is the welcome shift in mood the full-length endeavor needed to give it more variety overall. The track is also one of the highlights, along with “Distraction” and “Bright as the Stars”, in an album full of spectacular moments.
Though not as multi-layered, or as wide-ranging in content (though approaching far more subjects than most emcee’s at their most widely topical) as previous Kweli endeavors, Train of Thought: Lost Lyrics, Rare Releases and Beautiful B-Sides Vol. 1 is as timely as ever. Regardless of it being recorded throughout his seventeen years as a professional artist, and its attack on the mainstream’s copycat attitude towards music that makes up the general theme of nearly all of its songs, the material feels staggeringly recent and rings with an air of eternal importance made all the more noticeable by the long-standing approach to the various soundtracks which guide Kweli herein, and the unusually high (for a Kweli release) number of guest spots found within, in the vocal department. Train of Thought: Los Lyrics, Rare Releases and Beautiful B-Sides Vol. 1 may not be the immediate masterpiece of most of Kweli’s thirteen collective albums, though far from the uneven opus The Beautiful Struggle from 2004, but it is as strong, consistent and every bit as lyrical as we have come to expect from Kweli. These aspects in themselves make the effort well-worth checking out for all those who enjoy content and thought over the modern temporary flash modern Rap woefully has become. Hopefully, Kweli’s anti- avaricious attitude crosses over to those hypnotized by temporary gain and opens their eyes to how full-bodied and wondrous the craft of Hip Hop can be.
Talib Kweli’s Train of Thought: Lost Lyrics, Rare Releases & Beautiful- B Sides Vol.1 is unapologetically old-school in sound and in verbal flare and, as a whole, it is all the more wonderful because of it.