Talib Kweli always has something insightful to say on the social and political fronts. But "Prisoner of Conscious," due May 7 on Javotti Media/Caroline Distribution, travels beyond the issues that established Kweli as a rap pioneer and gets more personal.
Throughout his career, the Brooklyn-based rapper has channeled his creative muse through various incarnations: As half of Black Star with Mos Def, partnering with producer Hi-Tek for Reflection Eternal and, most recently, teaming with singer and longtime collaborator Res as Idle Warship on 2011's "Habits of the Heart."
Kweli notes, however, that his socially and politically charged reputation sometimes means that people don't "necessarily understand the musicality behind what I do." So with "Prisoner of Conscious," he "tried to stretch my wings a bit and bring something that was less beholden to the world of hip-hop and more existing in the world in general; to celebrate my hip-hop roots but still have it in newer packages."
Those packages come wrapped with an impressive string of guests. Miguel teams with Kweli on the upbeat Motown throwback "Come Here," while Melanie Fiona joins in on the driving "Ready Set Go." Nelly, with singer Abby Dobson, shines on the introspective music-and-life-themed "Before He Walked." One of the more unlikely pairings is with Brazilian singer/actor Seu Jorge on the carefree "Favela Love," inspired by a trip to Sao Paulo. Additional guests include Kendrick Lamar, Curren$y, Busta Rhymes and Ryan Leslie. Production collaborators range from Oh No and J. Cole to RZA, Sean C & LV and Symbolic One.
Kweli's fifth solo studio album is being released under his Javotti Media banner. Named after his paternal grandmother, the label is the successor to his earlier indie venture, Blacksmith Records, originally distributed by Warner Bros. Javotti's first release was Kweli's 2011 album "Gutter Rainbows,"distributed by 3D. Now Caroline Distribution is onboard for "Prisoner of Conscious," also complementing the project with radio and online promotion.
"Talib's mentality and work ethic are a very good fit for what we do," says Michael Harris, executive VP/GM of EMI Label Services/Caroline. "The indie world doesn't work for everyone; some artists need that major-label support. But Talib is almost like a one-man machine. He's very hands-on. 'Gutter Rainbows' was an indication of his fan base and what he can do, with no promotion, so to speak."
Major-label veteran Kweli counts six top 10s on Billboard's Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart. He scored his highest sales with "Reflection Eternal" (2000), which has sold 575,000, according to Nielsen SoundScan. While "Gutter Rainbows" has sold only 48,000, the rapper says the experience underscored that he "stands a better chance of financial success if I do this on my own. It's exciting that artists can now have a piece of their careers. Between the output and the work I've put in already, I've been blessed to develop a great fan base. As long as I stay on top of that, I'm fine."
A video for current single "Upper Echelon" premiered in January, preceded by two other clips for the cut "Push Thru" and bonus track "Outstanding." On a North America tour since Feb. 8 with stops at South by Southwest and Paid Dues, Kweli will wrap the run on April 13 in Chicago. Timed around "Prisoner of Conscious" are dates with NPR's "All Things Considered," WNYC New York's "Soundcheck Live," "Tavis Smiley" and "Guitar Center Sessions." On April 24, he'll appear on "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon."
Several more Javotti Media releases are also slated, including a compilation plus albums by Houston newcomer Cory Mo, Res and Idle Warship. "I love being creative," Kweli says. "Like a shark, I've got to keep moving. I can't stop."