Talib Kweli’s newest album, Gutter Rainbows, is appropriately named: it experiments with unexpected beats, uncharted subject matter and truly spans the entire musical color spectrum. Covering everything from religion, popular culture, violence, heritage and rap itself, Kweli’s sharp, intelligent lyrics and witty references — Reaganomics, Twitter, True Blood and adult actress Montana Fishburne, among many others — tie the album together and remain unflinchingly strong. With his words as a backbone, Kweli uses Gutter Rainbows as a canvas for an artistic effort that is equally innovative and discombobulating.
Starting with the titular opening track, “Gutter Rainbows,” Kweli juxtaposes his signature blend of soaring, gospel-influenced choruses and conscious lyrics with a wide variety of background instrumentals and beats: jazzy percussion and saxophone-like interjections in “Wait For You,” an almost dubsteppy guitar riff in “Go Now,” and even a cacophony of yelling voices in “I’m On One.” The mood of the album is similarly in flux, with a soulful ode to dark times (“So Low”) sharing space with a chronicle of dysfunctional love (“How You Love Me”) and an exaltation of self and skill (“Palookas”). No matter what musical backdrop they are set against, however, Kweli’s voice and poignant lyrics remain a welcome and grounding constant on Gutter Rainbows.
Gutter Rainbows’ variety is at some points a new and exciting showcase of Kweli’s extraordinary versatility, but in other instances simply overwhelming, with too many sounds and styles conflicting for the listener’s attention. The gems of Gutter Rainbows are those songs whose experimental aspects complements Kweli’s unique sound. Kweli’s musings on life and heritage are well-matched, as always, with gospel choruses on “So Low” and “Cold Rain,” but they also shine over Nirvana-esque acoustic guitar on the chilling standout “Tater Tot” as well as halting scales and wailing vocals on “How You Love Me” and Jean Grae’s sassy verses on “Uh Oh.” In all its tracks, strong and weak alike, Gutter Rainbows truly demonstrates Talib Kweli’s skill as both an MC and innovator.
— Emma Laurentine