Last December, Black Thought dropped what many consider to be the most epic on-air freestyle in history on Funkmaster Flex’s radio show. As astonishing as it was affirming, it proved that the 46-year old emcee from Philadelphia is still somehow improving his craft decades after many of his original contemporaries have faded into obscurity. In the world of hip-hop, that’s almost as remarkable as an athlete doing the same. In one sense, he’s not in a desperate position needing to appease fans with lengthy freestyles to prove that he’s still got it (The Roots are the house band of “The Tonight Show” and he acts in an HBO drama). After more than 30 years of rhyming, he doesn’t have to drop solo EPs to prove anything either. Streams of Thought Vol. 1 therefore, carries the spirit of that freestyle by serving as a highlight of what Tariq Trotter can do.
2018 seems to be becoming something of a response to the current hip-hop SoundCloud and downloadable single trend exploited by young, independent artists. Artists from The Weeknd to Kanye West have released projects 7 tracks or shorter, and SOTV1 follows suit. At only 5 tracks in length, the project itself will be considered an EP. Much like DAYTONA or YE, Black Thought’s first solo project is devoid of hooks, anything that sounds like an attempt at radio play, and largely of melody. Fans can expect bars, boom bap beats and samples unearthed from old crates, and little else. And that isn’t a bad thing. At 17 minutes in length, SOTV1 is something like the Cliffs Notes to Trotter’s skills, showcasing years of references and experiences layered into sententious, crisp narratives.
9th Wonder has been billed as the co-headliner here, and he mostly pieces together a collection of soulful loops and steady drum beats that allow him to fall back behind center stage, allowing Black Thought to lay down technical, hookless, and relentless rhymes. The most interesting sounds come on “Dostoyevsky” and “Making A Murderer,” the two tracks on the project that contain features. The former allows Thought’s taste for classic literature to create something like rhyming wanderlust.
Uh, I said Dostoyevsky meets Joe Pesci
Tired of staring at a glass half empty
Turning me from Dr. Sebi to cocking semi
It got me clutching my machete from the Serengeti already
Wild Style and Fab Five Freddy
I’m a stranger in Moscow, don’t ask how deadly is the ummah
Patrice Lumumba, Kwame Nkrumah
To the Tripoli shores from the halls of Montezuma
Aside from a flat line from Styles P on “Making A Murderer” (“We all got f***ed but no pornos”), the guests acquit themselves well enough. In reality, however, they feel like intermissions. To be sure, they seem to indulge in the low-stakes rhyming exercises. After the aforementioned line, Styles P lays down a verse that shows an artist willing to write until the pen runs dry. Rapsody is allowed to throw down a proficient verse with a few lines like “I ain’t turn starboy in a weekend.” Both come across like Kobe Bryant playing basketball at Rucker Park. In the end, though, SOTV1 might be better without features.
The closing track “Thank You” suggests that Thought has managed relevancy in a fickle industry and an escape from the violence of his hometown both through hard work and divine favor. “For every lesson I received as I live and breathe/And all the blessings I believed in and been achieved.” Black Thought may or may not have many more personal mountains to climb, but his career has been like a journey through Yellowstone and out into the valley looking toward the Grand Tetons. He might be on his way to the posh retirement community that is Jackson Hole, but he’s given no indication that he’s uninterested in a few more grand vistas along the way.