As a premier player in the late 90’s/early 00’s Soulquarian movement, Talib Kweli has bestowed the rap game with a conscious and critical voice for years. His role is very much that of a mature adult offering sage advice for budding generations. His solo debut, Train of Thought (2000), lead us down alleys of fatherhood in Memories Live and marriage advice in Love Language. In his more recent works – Revolutions per Minute (2010) and Gravitas (2013) – Kweli has gravitated to political issues, branding himself as an activist on and off the microphone. His unannounced, surprise project, Fuck the Money, was released two days ago, and here is our review.
While Kweli albums are usually dripping with neo-soul production, Fuck the Money sees a dramatic turn in both sound and energy. The snapping 808 drum patterns on songs like “Gratitude”, “Fall Back” and “Leslie Nope” don’t exactly scream Talib Kweli as they do Vince Staples. That being said, the aggression rising off of Kweli’s lyrics hold their own amidst this heavy production, and after a minute in, they become well suited. The second half of the album sports more familiar sounds: Kanye-esque pitched vocals on “He Said She Said”, satin smooth guitars on “Baby Girl”, and live keyboards on “The Venetian”. This fusion of tried-and-true jazz beats and 808 bangers proves that Kweli still has newfound energy even in his veteran status.
The biggest idea Kweli conveys on this album is the destructive power of money. As a rapper with plenty of ardent stances, this agenda should come as no surprise. On the title track, he warns, “When pursuit of the money is your only goal… then you lose your soul“. He also weighs in police brutality, ISIS, and American greed on “Nice Things”, using the hook, “this is why we can’t have nice things“, to break bad news to the world. In mainstream hip-hop, where money is seen as an end-all reward, Kweli stands alone as a rare and powerful voice. There is never any doubt that Kweli is being 100% on every bar, and even with potential unpopularity staring him down, he doesn’t seem the least bit concern. This album – even just its title – is the essence of Kweli: a deviant voice in a conformed world.
Kweli has grown by leaps and bounds since his laid-back Reflection Eternal days. He has clearly adapted to modern flow patterns, mimicking the machine gun delivery of Kendrick Lamar on “Fuck the Money” and “Nice Things”, even paying homage with his song, “Butterfly” (an obvious nod to To Pimp A Butterfly), as well as repeating his “Tire marks, tire marks” line from “Watch Out for Detox” on the track “Fall Back”. Kweli’s willingness to modify his style to the modern music climate says a lot about his ability to grow as an artist and recognize poets – like Kendrick – who are ascending in the game. There is also a new sense of aggression not seen in his previous works. While Kweli typically sounds frustrated while discussing social issues, Fuck the Money proves that his problems can escalate into real, in-your-face anger. On the tracks, “Fall Back” and “Nice Things” (no doubt a byproduct of touring with Immortal Technique earlier this year), the monstrous beats and fierce lyrics signify Kweli’s ever-present desire for real change in the world.
At a glance, the 808 trap-style beats may be off-putting for avid Kweli fans, but if anything can seize your attention, it’s the album’s message. Hip-hop is a culture in which money has been inflated into a caricature of itself, held on a pedestal as life’s sole purpose. One listen to Fuck the Money, and any listener will be thinking otherwise. It’s short. It’s sweet. And Talib Kweli proves to us again that he is the rap equivalent to the red pill in The Matrix.