March 22, 2010

Reflection Eternal (Talib Kweli & Hi-Tek) - Train Of Thought (October 17, 2000)

Here's one of those albums that it took me forever to actually find the patience to sit through.  You shouldn't take that last statement as an automatic dismissal of Reflection Eternal's Train Of Thought, though: I'm just not the biggest fan of emcee Talib Kweli.  My perception of the man is that he was the obvious weaker half of Black Star, which makes the fact that I have reviewed nearly every one of his partner Mos Def's projects even more apparent now, doesn't it?  But I try to have an open mind whenever I write, so I'll attempt to look forward to this revisitation.

Reflection Eternal is made up of the aforementioned Kweli and his producer friend Hi-Tek, who first met up in Cincinnatti, Ohio.  Hi-Tek was working with his crew Mood and allowed Kweli to guest on a track: ever since then, they've called themselves Reflection Eternal, even when they're not directly working together.  After signing with the once-mighty Rawkus Records, they quickly rushed out a twelve-inch single, "Fortified Live" (which also featured future Black Star mate Mos Def and Mr. Man from Da Bush Babees), with "2000 Seasons" as its B-side: both tracks found their way to the first Soundbombing compilation, with each track helping Reflection Eternal gain a cult following, not unlike opening an independent flick in twelve theaters in New York before slowly spreading out to the rest of the country.

Kweli and Hi-Tek's team took a brief hiatus when Talib and Mos Def banded together to create Black Star.  On their critically acclaimed project Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star (named as such because they legally couldn't actually call themselves Black Star), Hi-Tek handled the production on nearly half of the album, including the first single "Definition".  After that disc dropped in 1998, Kweli and Mos immediately set about working on their separate projects, with Dante's Black On Both Sides winning the race, hitting store shelves the following year.  Kweli took his time, crafting Reflection Eternal's debut album Train Of Thought for an eventual release date in 2000.

Train Of Thought was supposed to be seen as a soulful excursion through New York, as experienced through the eyes of a neo-soul poet in the vein of The Roots, except Kweli didn't have his own drummer following him around.  Kweli's rhyme skill had not yet reached his potential, but he decided to fill the album with twenty tracks regardless, since this was essentially his solo debut.  (Hi-Tek stays mainly behind the boards, but he does manage to sneak in a verse as practice for his own eventual solo efforts, which I hope to get to later.)  Predictably, Talib Kweli utilizes this opportunity to complain about the current state of hip hop (as most underground rappers are wont to do) while positioning himself as the next big thing.

The first single, "The Express", failed to set expectations as high as Kweli had hoped, and the fact that it was later dropped from the project completely for unknown reasons (my guess: sample wars) didn't help matters much.  As such, Train Of Thought was met with a surprising amount of unfavorable reviews, surprising only because everybody who loved the Black Star album was expecting this to be a natural continuation.  So it wasn't really much of a shock that Kweli and Hi-Tek broke up the band after Train Of Thought was completed, not because Reflection Eternal was no more, but more so that both members could further explore their roles in our chosen genre.  Hi-Tek's production work went in a much different direction than anybody had anticipated (he produced for the fucking G-Unit, for God's sake!), while Kweli continued to hone his craft, admittedly becoming more interesting behind the mic.

But yeah, this review is about Train Of Thought.

After a brief but unusually bizarre intro by Dave Chappelle (who plays the role of Nelson Mandela), Kweli chimes in with your typical rap album intro bullshit that still manages to thank the fans who have followed Reflection Eternal thus far. Which was nice of him.

Hi-Tek provides an instrumental that effectively wakes listeners up, informing them of the true beginning of Train Of Thought. Talib does his best to adopt an aggressive tone (even exclaiming “Shut the fuck up!” at one point), but he doesn't sound comfortable behind the mic just yet: already, he comes off as if he hasn't learned anything from the Black Star project. It's time to move somethin', all right: move on, as in on to the next one.

As this song borrows its title from a John Hughes-produced film which only exists because fans of Pretty In Pink (another Hughes-scripted flick) didn't care for the fact that Molly Ringwald made the (obvious, at least to me) decision to not hook up with Duckie (although the lost original ending of the movie does, in fact, have the characters doing just that), my expectations were already pretty low, as if Kweli wrote the track just to offset criticisms for “Move Somethin'”. Well, that experiment doesn't work: Hi-Tek's beat is a roaring thunderclap of dullness, and Talib sounds boring by proxy.

Kweli and Hi-Tek trade verses over this soulful beat, which is more in the vein of the Black Star album than the previous two tracks, even though this is easily the most commercial song on Train Of Thought thus far. But this shit is enjoyable as hell, so I'm not complaining. Even the vocals fit in well, without turning “The Blast” into R&B-lite.

Mos Def's “Know That”, which appeared on Black On Both Sides, set the bar for Dante/Kweli collaborations (those that weren't technically Black Star songs, anyway), and “This Means You” comes nowhere close to that song's level. This shit sucks. As I choose to ignore this track entirely (okay, one last comment: I hate the chorus), I'm going to instead ponder the fact that nothing on Train Of Thought sounds as lo-fi as Reflection Eternal's much-beloved “Fortified Live”, which also featured The Mighty Mos. I realize that is a much older track, and I shouldn't try to compare this album to the duo's early work, but they could have tacked that song on as a bonus or something.

Kweli has always taken himself a bit too seriously. I mean, hell, his hook on here includes the phrase “Where were you the day hip hop died?”. But still, I kind of dug this track. Hi-Tek provides a rolling instrumental throughout, punctuated with some disembodied vocals (from Res, who would later partner up with Kweli on his Idle Warship side project), that helps build Talib's verses into a modest ranch-style home with three bedrooms, a solarium, and a panic room. Also, historians, please take note that Talib Kweli trumped Nas in referring to our chosen genre as deceased already.

I've always found this song conducive to enjoying reflections on your past life. Hi-Tek's musical backdrop is peaceful, and Kweli, for the first time on the album, sounds completely comfortable behind the mic, as if, yes, this is what the man should be doing with his life. Oddly, when Talib, dives into a brief history of his career, he mentions his work with the Cincinnati group Mood, but neglects Black Star entirely. I did like how the end of this song segues into the next track seamlessly. And also how Hi-Tek found some work for his buddy from Mood, Donte.

Kweli and Weldon Irvine actually man the boards on this track (Hi-Tek receives only a co-producer credit). And they don't do a bad job of it at all: the song is only considered a bit of a mess thanks to Kweli's tendency to cram as many syllables as he can into a single bar, rhythm be damned.

Oddly sequenced into Train Of Thought, but to be fair, there is really no place where this song would fit coherently. This is probably the track that most hip hop heads gravitated toward immediately upon this album's release, as Hi-Tek switches his style just slightly (prior to his overall extreme makeover as a gangsta rap producer for Curtis Jackson and his buffoons) to make the guests feel at home, and they return the favor with entertaining verses. Kweli even sounds at ease on this collaboration, but it should also be noted that a version of this song (released as a B-side to one of their singles) that features him all by his lonesome is also readily available on the Interweb, and it's equally as interesting. Nice work, guys.

This one-verse wonder from Kweli is more of an incomplete thought than an actual song, ad a forgettable one, at that.

Hi-Tek custom-builds an instrumental for Kool G Rap and completely forgets that his boy Kweli is supposed to share the beat: as a result, Talib sounds almost laughable with his constant threats. (I will admit that he could probably sound credible today, but not ten years ago.) Oh well.

This is just an interlude.

“Love ain't nothing but a word / A chicken ain't nothing but a bird”? The fuck? Talib Kweli doesn't seem to understand the concept of the love rap, if he's so willing to dismiss the feeling as, well, nothing. Which makes this a difficult song to listen to, since you are unable to take our host seriously. Also, the vocals grate on the ears. Moving on...

You could also look at this as “Love Language (Reprise)”. No, really, you could: you have my permission and everything.

I've always liked the guitar sample on this track, but I don't really like the song as a whole. It's almost as if Kweli hadn't yet earned the right to rhyme alongside De La Soul at this point in his career. (This theory, admittedly, has some holes in it, as Kweli has sounded fine alongside Mos Def, Common, and Xzibit, all of whom are technically more relevant than De La Soul right now.) I suppose this is proof that one needs more than a funky guitar sample to make a rap song: the lyrics also have to be somewhat interesting.

Meh. Yeah, I just wrote “meh”. Deal with it.

This would be hilarious if it wasn't true: for this interlude featuring a half-assed verse from his invited guest, Hi-Tek provides a much better instrumental than he has for his Reflection Eternal partner for the entire fucking album. How fair is that?

Dave Chappelle briefly returns to Train Of Thought, this time portraying Rick James, three years before he immortalized his imitation on Chappelle's Show. (I wish I could write that the catchphrase “I'm Rick James, bitch!” originated here, because that would be funny, but alas, Dave only appears for, like, four seconds at the beginning.) His presence is the only halfway interesting element to this wack-ass song, though.

On here, Talib Kweli outshines Hi-Tek's beat (even with a horrible chorus) with verses that detail his perspective with perfect clarity. I think it's time to discuss the unthinkable: Hi-Tek is a good producer, Kweli has (some) skills behind the mic, and whenever the two get together, there is a bit of chemistry (and hip hop heads tend to get riled up with excitement). But I don't personally believe, based on all of Train Of Thought, that Reflection Eternal should exclusively work together for another album. Hopefully their new project features some outside production work, because otherwise, I fear it will be more of the same.

And with that, we're done. Oh shit, wait, no we aren't.

The following song immediately follows “Expansion Outro” on the same track.

Runs a bit too long, but “For Women” is easily the most interesting track on the entire second half of Train Of Thought (and not only because it's considered a bonus track, but full credits for the song are seen within the album booklet). The beat, co-produced between Hi-Tek and Kweli, utilizes a simple drumbeat paired up with a melody (as most songs do, I know: I realize that description isn't vague enough), and yet the track sounds fairly grand in scope. Kweli spits four verses (one for each woman, as the title is inspired by Nina Simone's “Four Women”) that all sound accomplished, leaving this as the best way possible to end this album. I wonder why it was categorized as a bonus, though: this could have easily been worked into the sequence.

FINAL THOUGHTS: Train Of Thought comes with the promise of talent from Reflection Eternal members Talib Kweli and Hi-Tek, but listeners will be let down severely. While Mos Def took his charismatic persona and attempted to show his many facets on his Black On Both Sides (regardless of what I've written about it not holding up, I still admit that Mos Def is a man of many talents), Kweli merely relies on workmanlike lyrics, resting on laurels that he hasn't garnered yet. Nothing on Train Of Thought is challenging in the least, whether you're looking at it from a lyrical perspective or a musical one. Hi-Tek's beats are alright, and some of these songs are really good, but there isn't anything on here that suggests that Reflection Eternal should jump back onto this Train anytime soon. A disappointment, and a mostly dull one, at that.

BUY OR BURN? I would burn this one. Kweli wasn't on Mos Def's level at this point: the man was not capable of handling an entire full-length album by himself. I'm sure that Kweli's fans will have something to say about that, but I don't give a fuck: this album is awfully boring. It is what it is.

BEST TRACKS: “Memories Live”; “Down For The Count”; “The Blast”


Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star


  1. Reflection Eternal! Great review, Max. I wanted to like this album a lot, but it's such a chore to listen to, and mostly forgettable too.

    Good Mourning is not bad though.

  2. talib kweli's music is very boring, speak the truth my nigga

  3. I got to disagree and say buy. This album may have a few tracks to throw away but it is just as good as Black on Both Sides and I say these albums (Black Star, Mos Debut, Reflection Eternal Debut) are all...Classics. Yep, I said it and who going to try to change my mind. Now excuse while I play The Blast and Mos Def's Brown Sugar *Then you Invited Me...* Also, when that Slum Village Fantastic Vol, 2. coming up???!!!

  4. I can see your point, I used to think it was boring but give it a couple more listens and it gets way better. It is defiantly better than what you cut it out to be, it just has to grow on you.

  5. Supreme MenaceMarch 22, 2010

    Hmmm, really?
    OOO well i still like it, but good review anyways, keep it up

  6. A.R. MarksMarch 22, 2010

    Yeah I never felt Train of Thought was the classic it was purported to be. It had a few really great tracks and a lot of pretty crappy ones. Shit felt watered down.

  7. Whoa. Did Kweli steal your Ex-Girlfriend or something? You seem to have a lot of hate for that dude.

    And i call you crazy for calling Teks Beats on here dull. But i m beyond giving a fuck, our tastes on music just differ greatly despite the fact we love similar music.

  8. "This Means You" and "Move Somethin'" are hip-hop at its finest.

    "Battle you in the mental/Pick any mental, instru-, funda-, detri-"

    I'm not saying that Train of Thought is as good as Black Star or even Black on Both Sides. But those two songs pair breakneck beats with fire lyricism.

  9. Max... by far the wackest review i've read in a while. Where are all these bad reviews of this album that ur talking bout? Most ppl that like Kweli that I know seem to really like this album. O well ur entitled to ur opinions.

    P.S. Sorry that Kweli stole ur girlfriend. That must have sucked

  10. I can get into the great tracks, but the other filler was just that...filler. He really wasn't that much of a great rapper back in the day, and while he still has his fleeting moments of brilliance, it isn't enough to condone a buy of this album. It was boring as fuck, and I consider Black Star & Black on Both Sides as classics. Instead of asking what shit in Max's cornflakes, my question is why is it that a bitch like you got to catch feelings? You mad that somebody doesn't like your boy toy Kweli? Get over yourselves.

  11. Nice review. He's a damn good MC


  12. disagree, but it's a fair analysis. i always liked some kind of wonderful

  13. in this case i have to disagree, too. i absolutely love this album and think it's the best in talibs career. can't wait for the new hi-tek-collabo-album.


  15. This album sounds like it's actually pretty good, straightforward hip hop. Kweli's a damn good lyricist-I like how he crams syllables into his bars sometimes, it's like he has heaps ideas that just need to get out. Good Review.


  16. eternalists is one of kwelis best. meh to you. deal with that.

  17. I disagree with most of this review. At a time when hip hop was just as redundant as ever; ie. rich caviar eating tough guy rappers who live in million dollar houses but still see roaches on the walls and dirty talking protitutes posing as female MC's; Talib Kweli and Hi-Tek set out to negate the "norm" and they did it with FLAVA.

  18. Great review you try to make your self like because every other head claims its great. I have it but, I haven't even gotten through it.

  19. Don't make me cut you... I'm kidding, nice review. I wonder what you think of Eardrum.

  20. Your Really Unconscious

  21. AnonymousMay 03, 2010

    The fact that you are just now reviewing this, speaks to your lack of any serious credentials. Talib has actually gotten worse, his best work was with Mos and Hi-Tek, we will see how his new Reflection Eternal album is, I'm hoping its half as good as Train of Thought.

  22. AnonymousMay 15, 2010

    this review is real

  23. AnonymousMay 30, 2010

    Dude, this is by far, the weakest Review i've ever read!! Do you have any clue of Hiphop Music at all?! I really really wonder, how you consider yourself to be into Rapmusic at all, reading your statements!! Talib ist one of the best Mcs on Earth, and this LP is a Materpiece, and absolut Blast, one of the best of all time!! I personally like this LP way more than the blackstar stuff, and think MosDef may have a huuuge talent, skills and tries to innovate his styles, but I really don't feel him that much the last years!! After black on both sides, i mainly was disappointed by his releases, while Talib always suprised me in a positive way!! I would recommend to do your job better next time, its really unbelievable what kind of people think they have a clue of something when they don't!!

  24. I never truly loved it, but after about five (forced) listens, I'm beginning to see its merits.
    BOBS and Black Star is still better though. However, I'd still considering buying this without hesitation. It is Talib Kweli we're talking about here.

  25. lol Max. Parts of this review had me cracking up. It's like you were reading my mind, especially with "Love Language". Talk about an epic beat wastage with a couple goofy lines, and especially that goofy bird shit. the very first time I heard the song way way back, it took me out of the song. My precise thought: "wtf? oh man I can't play this with my girl"