Reunions of music groups can be tricky propositions. Some are clearly money grabs, while others are genuine. Classify Reflection Eternal's as the latter.
Reflection Eternal, the groundbreaking duo of rapper Talib Kweli and producer Hi-Tek, collaborated on late 1990s singles and on the 1998 Black Star album with Mos Def before releasing their eponymous landmark album in 2000. Since then, Talib Kweli has established himself as one of rap's premier acts, delivering stunning, uplifting singles like "Get By" and acclaimed, well-rounded and thought-provoking albums like 2007's Eardrum. 50 Cent has named Kweli as one of his favorite rappers and he's also been famously name-dropped in Jay-Z's rhymes. At the same time, Hi-Tek has become one of rap's go-to producers, working extensively with Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, 50 Cent, G-Unit, The Game and Ghostface Killah, among others.
Now, after working with one another on each other's solo material, Reflection Eternal has reunited for its second stellar sonic offering, Revolutions Per Minute. The album's title has a double meaning, the obvious one being the number of times a record can go around on a record player. The other has a meatier objective. "It's the idea of revolution through music," Talib Kweli explains. "It's the idea that people in today's culture take things in YouTube-sized bites and clips and if it's not in a clip or a soundbite or something that you can fit in under a minute, people don't pay attention to it. The idea is: How many revolutions can you get accomplished in under a minute in a quick culture?"
Reflection Eternal's signature blend of edutainment shines brightly on "In This World." Backed by Hi-Tek's throbbing bassline and stirring soul sample, Kweli outlines his recipe for success while realizing that we tend to live by the following troublesome axioms: "Slave to our possession/Greed the Devil favorite weapon." "I get a chance to brag and boast a little bit on that song, but it's really about the hustle," Kweli says. "A lot of hip-hop artists make songs about the hustle, the grind. Those are key words, tag words that are really overused in our culture, but they're not overused for the sake of people trying to sell records. They're overused because people really relate to a song that talks about really grinding and hustling."
The pair then recognizes the hustle and grind of longtime collaborator Mos Def and up-and-comers Jay Electronica and J. Cole on the horn-backed "Just Begun." It's a magnificent marriage of supreme lyricism and dizzying flows accented by clever turns of phrase. Kweli sustains this heightened level of artistry on the pulsating "Got Work," where he delivers a powerful meditation on our culture's infatuation with fame.
"We don't have any kings or queens and religion is being exposed for being fraudulent in a lot of ways," Kweli says. "People have a lot more access to information and people always want to worship something, and the next thing they turn to is the celebrities and the fame. That is our royalty, our God, what we worship and what we pay attention to. Instead of a society being drawn together from a cultural identity or drawn together because of an idea of God, we're drawn together by our fascination with people's lives, like a high school thing."
This realization informs much of Reflection Eternal's most insightful material. "Strangers" with Bun B explores the shortcomings of the United States' medical system and some of our country's governmental shortcomings, while "Black Gold" features Kweli focusing on Nigeria's oil business. The latter was inspired by Kweli's own trip to the African country, which left him both inspired and enraged. "It was tragic and beautiful at the same time," he reveals. "It was beautiful to see such a proud people, to see people who were just able to survive, even with the corruption. It's so bad. It's just one example of how Africa has been decimated and controlled and compromised."
These are the types of insightful and entertaining songs that have earned Kweli fans around the world. Count Hi-Tek among them. "Lyrically, he's just a beast," he says. "Seriously. Jay-Z didn't say that line for nothing. He said it for a reason."
Elsewhere, "In The Red" gives an informed music history lesson and "Liftin Off" delves into an honest discussion regarding the effects of drug use, while the lively, soulful "Midnight Hour" celebrates an anticipated reunion with a lover.
Kweli's disparate song concepts and wide emotional range are all seamlessly tied together by Hi-Tek's exquisite production. His deft command of the sonic spectrum allows Hi-Tek to be in sync with any of Kweli's moods or topics. "With producing a whole album, you have to sound like you're three producers, at least," Hi-Tek says. "When I produce an album, I'm Kanye, Dre, Timbaland and Primo, all in one. You've got to try to not be monotonous and at the same time keep the same vibe for the album."
It's a vibe that Talib Kweli and Hi-Tek have been developing since they met mid-1990s. Kweli was drawn to the musicality, tone and muscularity of Hi-Tek's beats, while Hi-Tek was impressed by the quality of Talib Kweli's material.
Though they came from two different worlds -- Kweli the fast-paced world of Brooklyn and Hi-Tek the streets of Cincinnati -- they were able to form an instant connection because of their love and passion for music, listening to it, studying it and making it. They started recording songs and would take turns in each other's city. Kweli benefited from being in Cincinnati because he always had a studio in which to record. Hi-Tek's trips to New York paid off for other reasons.
"If it wasn't for Kweli dragging me around New York and bigging me up on every song he did, people really wouldn't know who I was," Hi-Tek says today. "He made it a point to say my name on the tracks and that really helped out a lot. Being that the tracks were coming hard and for him to say who did them, it really helped me out."
More than a decade after their first collaborations, Talib Kweli and Hi-Tek are each among the most respected in their respective crafts. Kweli is a torchbearer for those craving commercially viable music that matters, while Hi-Tek has been able to deliver impeccable work that ranges from bombastic beats for the most progressive backpack rappers to bone-crushing soundbeds for the gruffest gangster rappers.
But it's their work together as Reflection Eternal that may ultimately define the legacies of both Talib Kweli and Hi-Tek. And that's a great thing given the exemplary work both of these masters display on Revolutions Per Minute, a continuation of Grade A musicality.
"My music is music that is often categorized as conscious or revolutionary or political," Kweli says. "But at the same the time, I strive for -- and I think Hi-Tek does as well -- entertainment value and musicality, to make you feel good when you hear the music. I think it was important for us to convey that energy, which is a revolutionary energy, and to keep it in musical terms."
It's a revolution indeed, and the more revolutions per minute the better.