Legends of rap have continually proven to be a hit-or-miss commodity when releasing music well after their understood primes. The misses, unfortunately the more common of the two, often don’t deter these rappers from flooding the hip-hp market with more music. This year alone has already seen subpar efforts from indisputable hip-hop kingpins like Eminem, Lil Wayne, and Nas.
Rare is the MC with hip-hop classics well behind him who still defies time and pushes the lyrical game forward during the current moment. Rare is Black Thought, the Philadelphia rapper long known for serving as the frontman and lyrical mastermind of The Roots. Since releasing such stellar albums with that group, including but far from limited to Things Fall Apart and Game Theory, Black Thought has challenged time to a duel of longevity. His weapon is his lyricism. So far, he’s winning.
Black Thought’s latest release is titled Streams of Thought, Vol. 3: Cane & Abel. As the title implies, this is the third installment in his “Streams of Thought” series. The first two volumes were released as EPs back in 2018. Thought’s decision to expand his release format to a full LP is driven by a desire to work thematic unity into a collection of songs that are nearly bubbling over with lyrical free-association.
That thematic desire is evident through the opening interlude “I’m Not Crazy (First Contact)”. A series of narrators detail Columbus’s first experience in the Americas and their total inability to regard the people they encountered as human beings. This detrimental approach is dubbed as “Columbus mentality” and its parallels to contemporary oppressors are woven into the album’s fabric through both direct political lyricism and later interludes.
A socially conscious motif is to be expected from Black Thought, but the strength of this LP is undeniably the lyrical acrobatics that Thought is still able to deliver a full three decades removed from his hip-hop inception. He wastes no time displaying this ability in a solo capacity with a vicious series of verses on “State Prisoner”. Next, he shares the limelight with fellow veteran MCs Pusha T and Killer Mike on “Good Morning”. The track is an absolute album standout and all three rappers lay down impeccable verses while Swiss Beatz handles the surprisingly infectious chorus. The first leg of the album also includes “Magnificent”, another hard-hitting song where Thought seamlessly rhymes words like “draconian” and “Pavolvian”. Most rappers likely can’t define those terms.
This album begins with a bang but does wander a little in the middle portion. These songs possess a more melodic focus and don’t hit with the same consistency as the opening cuts. There are still worthwhile tracks, such as “Quiet Trip”, where Black Thought deftly alters his flow to fit the instrumental and hit certain down beats perfectly. This song features rock band Portugal. The Man, who offer contributions to two later tracks as well. Other vocalists also feature in this middle section, most notably C.S. Armstrong laying down the hook on “We Could Be Good (United)”.
Thought saves some his most impressive lyrical wizardry for last on “Ghetto Boys and Girls – Fuel Interlude” and “Fuel”. These tracks bleed into each other and offer so many lines to unpack. Some bars contain artistic references such as “Hollow men in the wasteland like T.S. Eliot” and “I’m an Ernest Hemingway portrait painted by Ernie Barnes”. Others are just heavy messages, made all the more powerful because of Thought’s effortless use of cacophony. One such example is the gem “Karma police carrying customized cuffs for me”. These dazzling displays of lyricism are the reason Black Thought hasn’t dropped off as an MC.
This project is brief, at just under 34 minutes, but Black Thought packs it with enough dense bars and topical interludes to sharply get his point across. The Philadelphia native incessantly reminds listeners, most obviously on “Thought vs Everybody”, that not only has his passion for hip-hop failed to dwindle, but he still has the rapping chops to spit with the best of them.