Thursday, July 16, 2009

July 16: Reflection Eternal, "Train Of Thought"

Artist: Reflection Eternal
Album: Train Of Thought
Year: 2000
Label: Rawkus

There was a point in the mid to late 1990's when the genre of hip hop was nearly completely comprised of copycat artists who were writing mindless rhymes over some of the most uninspired beats and music. Yet sadly, "the masses" were buying this second-hand excuse for talent, and to this day, true writing and rhyming skills remain a smaller necessity for success than being loud and repetitive. However, as hip hop began to devolve, a small group of artists on both coasts of the U.S. were determined to keep "real hip hop" alive in some form. Artists like Mos Def, Jurassic 5, and Common, among others, continue to release some of the most thought provoking and original hip hop that the genre has ever heard. After gaining notoriety as half of the rap group, Black Star (Mos Def being the other), Talib Kweli began working on a more solo project, with friend and DJ, Hi Tek. The resulting album, 2000's Train Of Thought, remains one of the finest achievements in hip hop, and vaulted Kweli into the upper echelon of emcees.

The album cover has caused a few issues over the group and album name, as both Talib and Hi Tek's names, as well as the words "Reflection Eternal" and "Train Of Thought" all appear. To clarify, the duo of Talib and Hi Tek become the group called Reflection Eternal, and the album itself is called Train Of Thought. The guests appearing on the album read like a "who's who" of the conscious hip-hop scene, with Mos Def, De La Soul, Kool G Rap, Les Nubians, and Rah Digga all making appearances, along with a number of top notch emcees. Yet the most recognizable name on the record may be the producer of Train Of Thought, a man named Rick James. The combination of James and Hi Tek help to give the album a much smoother, yet funkier sound than anything else that was being done in hip hop at the time. In many ways, being different is exactly what Reflection Eternal was all about. From the rhymes to the music, Train Of Thought does everything it can to stand out in the crowd, or perhaps more to the point, not BE part of the crowd. The approach is a breath of fresh air in an era when commercially successful hip hop has completely lost sight on the basic elements upon which the genre was founded. Emcee Talib Kweli engages in a relentless assault on the poor representation of African American culture within hip hop, as well as the banal and often stupid rhymes of most other artists in the genre. Kweli absolutely decimates the entire "playa" notion when he rhymes, "...these cats drink champagne, to toast death and slaves on the ship talkin' 'bout who got the flyest chains..." on the song, "African Dream." It is cutting, unrelenting rhymes like these, over-top the superb music created by Hi Tek that makes Train Of Thought one of the most amazing and engaging records in the history of hip hop music.

The music and beats on Train Of Thought are some of the most original and engaging sounds that have come out of the genre in years. Cincinnati, Ohio's own, Hi Tek, proves to be one of the most innovate beat makers on this side of the Mississippi River. Ignoring the trend of the time, and NOT having songs that are "all about the bass," Hi Tek creates fantastic, head bobbing beats, featuring samples from artists as diverse as Soft Machine and Wu-Tang Clan. Incorporating everything from gorgeous violin loops to simple, staccato clapping, Hi Tek proves again and again what an amazing producer he is, and the mood the music creates is nothing short of phenomenal. Whether it is the funky guitar on "This Means You," or the moody keyboards on "Good Mourning," the music is varied and interesting throughout Train Of Thought, and it is yet another way in which the album stands far above the rest. One of the finest examples of just how creative Hi Tek is can be found on the track, "Too Late," where the multi-layered sound of keyboards, flutes, and various percussion makes for one of the most captivating musical textures in hip hop history. Pushing light-years beyond "thumping bass," each track on Train Of Thought has its own personality, and the varied sounds and tempos keep the album lively and original, making it a true gem in the hip hop genre.

Though the music created by Hi-Tek is absolutely fantastic, it is the rhymes of Talib Kweli that make Train Of Thought such a stunning album. With his calm, clear vocal delivery, Kweli makes sure that not a word is lost, and the soul behind his rhyming is second to none. Bringing as much power and intensity as any other emcee, Kweli rarely raises his voice, yet each word demands the utmost attention. It is clear that, not only does Talib Kweli despise the brainless state of hip hop music, but he s able to brilliantly pick it apart, piece by piece, and show why the genre has become cliché and meaningless. Kweli goes on a hard attack against the mediocrity of the bulk of emcees on "Some Kind Of Wonderful" when he rhymes, "...that whack shit money you can't be n***as is hilarious actresses, runnin' around the club pissy like ghetto mattresses...that's why I smack these kids back to reality, and how it be in actuality..." Kweli furthers his assault on the meaningless rhymes that dominate a majority of hip hop when he directly attacks emcees again on "Too Late" with the rhyme, "...emcees who got the masses mesmerized, with empty rhetoric they better quit, n***as so hollow that they echo like sentiments..." Later on Train Of Thought, Kweli takes on hip hop's seeming fascination with death, as he explores the entire idea, as well as "keeping it real" on the song, "Good Mourning." Yet Kweli's rhymes are not always angry, yet they are always filled with meaning. If you're looking for rhymes about partying and chasing women, this album is not for you. But if you're looking for original, intelligent, and insightful hip hop which stays true to the foundations of the genre, then Train Of Thought is exactly what you need.

Becoming a successful performer in any music genre has always had the same method: wait for the popular style to emerge, then copy it. Though this has helped countless artists gain international fame, it has simultaneously killed the search for original sounds, as well as dulled the tastes of the general public to a point where mediocre is now seen as amazing. Another way of stating this fact would be: just because you sold two million records, doesn't mean you've got any legitimate talent. Rising up against the mundane, brainless state of rap music, emcee Talib Kweli and producer Hi Tek, known together as Reflection Eternal, create some of the most innovative and stimulating music that hip hop has seen in years. Brutally criticizing the entire world of hip hop, the lyrics are blunt, unforgiving, and yet completely accurate. The way in which Kweli crafts and delivers his observations are second to none, and he remains one of the most outspoken and highly respected emcees in the world. Breaking the trend of lackluster hip hop, Reflection Eternal released an absolute hip hop classic in their 2000 album, Train Of Thought, and it remains one of the most original, thought provoking, and satisfying musical experiences in decades.

Standout tracks: "Some Kind Of Wonderful," "This Means You," and "Good Mourning."

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