Happy 15th Anniversary to Reflection Eternals Train of Thought, originally released October 17, 2000.
While those with selective memories might assume that the critically acclaimed, Rawkus Records supported LP Train of Thought was the first time that Brooklyn-bred Talib Kweli and Cincinnati native DJ/producer Hi-Tek collaborated on wax, their creative partnership was actually already three years old by the time the album arrived. The duo first worked together on the Cincinnati-based hip-hop trio Moods underrated 1997 debut LP Doom, with Kweli lending vocals to five tracks, Hi-Tek producing nine tracks, and both gentlemen appearing together on album highlight Industry Lies. Much to the subsequent delight of hip-hop heads worldwide, the song and their respective contributions to the Mood project sparked a musical partnership that has blossomed for nearly twenty years since.
In 1997, Kweli and Hi-Tek formally branded themselves as Reflection Eternal, a meaningful moniker that Kweli had been contemplating for some time, as he explains in the album’s press video:
I had the name Reflection Eternal before I linked up with Hi-Tek. I got it after I read this book called Monument Eternal by Alice Coltrane, where she talks about a spiritual experience she had, how she was astro-travelling and how she was able to transcend a lot of the things that were holding her down in her life. And ya know, it can have a lot of different meanings. We are the reflection of our ancestors, the reflection of what our ancestors have made us into. We reflect our community in general, and were forever, thats where the eternal part comes from.
The same year, the duo contributed two stellar tracks Fortified Live featuring Mos Def (a.k.a. Yasiin Bey) and 2000 Seasons to the Rawkus Records commissioned Soundbombing compilation, which instantly and deservedly made waves within underground circles. The pair then contributed another song, The Manifesto, to the labels Lyricist Lounge Volume 1 project released the following year to an even broader reception than its precursor.
While it would be another few years until the duo released their first proper full-length album, both Kweli and Hi-Tek broke through in a major way during the interim period. In late 1997, Kweli joined forces with his comrade-in-rhyme Mos Def to record as Black Star. The fruits of their alliance were manifested in the form of Mos Def and Talib Kweli are Black Star, the poetically poignant and sonically stirring 1998 LP that garnered the duo abundant critical acclaim. Hi-Tek produced five of the albums thirteen tracks, including the excellent Respiration and K.O.S. (Determination). Mos and Kweli also became integral members of the Soulquarians collective during this time, joining forces with kindred musical spirits Questlove, Common, Erykah Badu, DAngelo, and Bilal, among others. As a brief aside, I had the great pleasure of witnessing firsthand a reunited Black Star perform at Rock the Bells in Mountain View, CA during the summer of 2011, and they rocked the stage like it was 1998 all over again, offering further testament to the timelessness of the music theyve created together.
Though the Black Star LP showcased Kwelis many talents for sure, it was Train of Thought, his first album crafted with Hi-Tek, that convinced me once and for all of Kwelis brilliance not just as an emcee, but also as a writer, intellectual and all-around hip-hop ambassador. Kwelis approach to writing and rhyming is so uniquely refreshing and captivating because its unequivocally devoid of the superficiality, gimmickry, and flamboyance that plague too many of his fellow emcees. As he explains it, I aint a thug. I aint a player. I aint a gangster. I aint a hip-hop purist. Im a real man with real issues. [Hi-Tek and I] are trying to make music thats gonna stay around in history, not for the sake of making history. But because we have an obligation and responsibility to our babies, to the canon of artists that came before us to put it down in the proper way. Indeed, Kwelis voice is defined by his passion, sincerity, wisdom, self-awareness, humility, love for community over self. And all of these attributes are on glorious display across the duration of Train of Thought.
The albums primary power lies within its ability to simultaneously embody hip-hops most fervent underground sensibilities, while its messages and soundscapes remain universally accessible. With a title like Train of Thought, some may have originally assumed that it was a disproportionately cerebral affair that skimped on the beats. And they would have been mistaken. Very mistaken. Train of Thought is an intelligent, introspective and mentally galvanizing song suite to be sure. But Hi-Tek blesses the proceedings with a stirring mix of uptempo bangers and more subdued compositions, all infused with sonic flourishes that perfectly complement his partners various ruminations.
Following Dave Chappelles commendable Nelson Mandela impression that kicks off the album, Kweli outlines the albums noble, yet humble mission:
All the black families hustling
Single moms, single dads in the house
Parentless children, we see y’all, I’m with y’all
All the ballers, players, revolutionaries, gangsters
We don’t represent the streets
We represent the folks in ’em!
And then Kweli and Hi-Tek waste no time in kicking things into high gear with a pair of tracks the rousing Move Somethin, and lyrically acute Some Kind of Wonderful that convincingly extol the virtues of substantive hip-hop, while breaking down those that fake it to make it.
The first echoes of the more soulful Soulquarians-indebted sound surfaces on track 4, the hypnotic The Blast, which includes a Vinia Mojica enhanced chorus and Gil Scott-Heron blessed outro. Ironically, The Blast did not appear on the initial album recording that Kweli & Hi-Tek submitted to Rawkus. But the label encouraged the duo to return to the studio to cut a more radio-friendly single, which ultimately became The Blast.
A handful of downtempo, contemplative tracks represent some of the LPs most provocative and memorable fare, not to mention your authors personal favorites. Atop a lush Soft Machine sample, Memories Live finds Kweli recalling the portrait of the artist as a young man, as he explores his earliest inspirations for embracing a career in the hip-hop game and his motivations for sustaining his profession with a level mind and unfettered soul. Featuring Les Nubians in the chorus, the endearingly sincere Love Language is an uplifting hymn to the universal complexities and rewards of love. On the sobering Good Mourning, Kweli eloquently contemplates death while celebrating the sanctity of living:
Life is hard, death is harder; you somebody baby father
Someone’s lover, son of your mother, somebody brother
Somebody nigga, now your spirit in the air like a whisper
Hearin your name mentioned when we pourin out some liquor
The days go by quicker and the nights don’t seem to differ
It’s gettin cold, so I shivered and asked my soul to be delivered
Africa Dream is one of the more sonically adventurous tracks, with its magnificent mix of tribal percussion and jazz inflections coupled with high-BPM drum & bass-like beat patterns.
The album features more than a few intriguing guest spots from Kweli and Hi-Teks talented peers, including Mos Def (This Means You), Res (Too Late), Rah Digga and Xzibit (Down for the Count), Kool G Rap (Ghetto Afterlife), and De La Soul (Soul Rebels). A hidden bonus track and arguably the albums most arresting song, Four Women, serves as the groups contemporary reimagining of Nina Simones 1966 song of the same name. Kwelis empathetic narratives documenting the nuanced experiences and adversities of four different women make for an undeniably gripping tribute to Simones original and an incisive portrait of the Black female experience in America.
Of the three seminal Black Star related LPs including Black Star and Mos Defs solo debut Black on Both Sides, Train of Thought remains my favorite, granted by the slimmest of margins, as each of the albums represent essential listening. But I find myself revisiting Train of Thought more often than the other two, as I try to capture words, phrases, sentiments and symbolism that I may have overlooked or misinterpreted upon earlier listens. Both Kweli and Hi-Tek have since cultivated prolific recorded repertoires of their own and together, reuniting for 2010s follow-up LP Revolutions per Minute. But Train of Thought still represents, in my opinion, the duos greatest of their many achievements to date.
My Favorite Song: Memories Live & Good Mourning (tie)