The title of Brooklyn wordsmith Talib Kweli's Prisoner of Conscious LP is rooted in journalistic folklore.
The 37-year-old's fifth solo album manifested via an interview years ago with VIBE.com, in which the rapper casually dropped the phrase. Soon after, it appeared on his Wikipedia page as the title of a future project.
"I had no album called Prisoner of Conscious but the fact that everybody was asking about that showed me that was a great title to captivate my journey," says Kweli. "I don’t consider myself a ‘prisoner of conscious.’ This album isn’t a whole bunch of conscious rap; it’s more about feelings, emotions and stuff that people go through."
He's got quite a bit of help portraying those realities. The tracklist of Prisoner hit the Internet a few days ago, revealing guest appearances by Nelly, Miguel, Melanie Fiona, Busta Rhymes and Marsha Ambrosius, who he calls "one of the most incredible singers of our generation."
"It was actually J. Cole’s idea to get her on the track," Kweli recently told VIBE of the album finale "Only Gets Better," his first proper collaboration with Marsha. "I was chopping it up with Cole about finding a way to get him on my album and instead of him rapping, it ended up being a beat. The hook that Marsha’s singing, J. Cole came up with that. If you listen carefully, you can hear him in the background. We were talking about getting a female voice and he was like, 'Let’s go with Marsha.'"
There are also assists by Curren$y and Kendrick Lamar on "Push Thru," a song he says he recorded a couple years back, when Black Hippy was first impacting. The Jet Life rapper was a more recent coup for the record. "You know what makes Curren$y dope?" Talib asks, rhetorically. "He finds so many different ways to talk about weed. I see a lot of similarities between us."
Prisoner of Conscious is the second album to be released under Kweli's independent label Javotti Media, the successor to his defunct Blacksmith Records. Aside from the album, Talib says he has plans to write and release a book via Javotti. He's adhering to no boundaries, including the "poster boy of underground rap" title with which he feels he's been tagged.
"A lot of people only get their music from mainstream sources," he says. "My output is different and that’s okay. Sometimes it does get frustrating when people put you in a box. I don’t even know if I’ll ever shed that title or if it’s worth being shed. It’s not the worst title to have."
Prisoner of Conscious will be released on May 7. —Christopher Harris