Talib Kweli & Styles P - The Seven
For all of its hero worship, hip-hop rarely inspires great middle-age work by its veterans. Think Jay-Z’s Magna Carta Holy Grail or the laughable Authentic by LL Cool J and the memories arrive in a rush – riiiiight, that’s why we stopped listening. It’s easy to overlook a project like The Seven, then, if only because collaborators Talib Kweli and Styles P have kept things relatively quiet following middling solo releases in 2015. A collaborative EP between them seemed, to most, an unlikely curio. Yet, in an era where hip-hop’s vital political energy has been briefly re-activated to combat our crumbling national infrastructure, the two well established MCs find a spark that makes this quick set of 7 songs a well-timed diatribe.
Opener “Poets and Gangstas” serves as a jazzy, NYC-tinted pallet cleanser for what’s to come. Major touchstones include: Kweli and Styles offering “that shit you ain’t know that you need”, a multitude of cannabis (note: not Canibus) references, and a weirdly dated Atari comparison. Can we officially retire mentions of that system in 2017? Yet, It still hums along pleasantly enough, and our hosts trade bars with an effortlessness that belies their frequent overlap through the years on projects like Statik Selectah’s Lucky 7. “Brown Guys”, meanwhile, calls out white privilege and race politics in tones both profound and vulgar. While Kweli’s admonition that “your opinion is not needed here” offers a strong corrective in a culture that often levies white guilt against the experiences of black mourning, Styles P can’t resist bullshit bars such as “sittin’ there with the sick face / a dickface, you a dickhead”. For his part, Styles delivers verses across tracks like “In the Field” and “Teleprompters” that trudge by quietly without impact. Perhaps it’s Kweli’s distinctive, adenoidal voice that often makes his verses feel like the standouts on this project, but there’s a vital energy to his rhyming and kaleidoscopic focus on American politics, Egyptology, and African history that leave his partner’s trad-gangster bars feeling especially banal.
Like a forgotten Midnight Marauders outtake, The Seven features a number of vocal interludes and the second half hosts a number of big-name features. While the theme of seven isn’t really explored beyond the opening monologue, the house/field slave dialectic emerges on a Malcolm X snippet on “The Field”. The track touches prominently on police brutality, the contentious 13th amendment, and the prison-industrial complex. It knocks, too, although the tendency towards long, repetitive choruses sandwiched by short verses, frequently drag these songs out unnecessarily. A number of high-profile friends show up too, although the proceedings still feel situated in the past. Common breezes through on “Teleprompters”, a sticky Eminem-aping track that never settles on a target, and offers generic bars like “wear my heart on my sleeve like a tattoo”. Canadian producer Marco Polo brings some gravitas to the proceedings with the murky “Nine Point Five”, reuniting The LOX briefly on an understated posse-cut that doesn’t add up to much lyrically, but offers Styles the opportunity to dunk on his teammates, Kodak camera references notwithstanding. Rapsody even brings new energy to “Let It Burn”, although the Dakota Pipeline references feel at odds with the otherwise aimless track about “weaponizing lyricists”.
Talib and Styles position themselves at the conclusion of “The Seven” as ”the last ones left”, all the other rappers and street homies either aging out or falling off. And with veterans like Blackstar alum Mos Def consciously avoiding the rap industry, this collaboration offers a unique viewpoint from two industry influentials who could easily be relegated to the bargain bin. Hip-hop is still young enough that it hasn’t quite determined the direction for late middle-age artists to find their lane. The Seven is no lyrical masterpiece, and most of the production is solidly situated in the dusky production choices of the NYC golden era that reared these MCs. But an overtly political hip-hop EP in 2017 is a necessary thing, even if our hosts often rely on the outdated vernacular of their 90s heyday to broach it.