There are three things you can always expect from a Talib Kweli album: relentless consciousness, intelligent lyrics and production that looks back toward classic hip–hop rather than experimenting with whatever’s new and trendy. Gutter Rainbows, his follow–up to 2007’s Eardrum, is no different. The mid–album track “I’m On One” opens with a voiceover demanding that Kweli show all the other “square head” rappers how it’s done — and for the most part he does, especially on the album’s middle section.

Culminating with the piano–driven single “Cold Rain,” on which Kweli puts a perceptive finger on the pulse of his times, this chunk of the album reminds us why he constantly stays on the radar without dumbing down his identity as a rapper. It also boasts a perfect diversity of complementary sounds. “Wait for You” has the jazzy feel of early Roots albums, while “Ain’t Waiting” is an upbeat, soul–infused anthem.

And while the rest of Gutter Rainbows delivers good hip–hop, its lack of such diversity is what keeps the album from being Kweli’s finest solo work yet. That’s always been both the blessing and the burden for Kweli: in one light, the specificity and distinctiveness of his sound seems like consistency, but in another it can turn into a kind of limitation. For Gutter Rainbows, this translates into a highly listenable and satisfying final product — but one that falls just short of the revolution Kweli is calling for.

Sounds Like: Street corner sounds meet the coffee shop

99–Cent Download: “Cold Rain”

Good For: Restoring your faith in conscious hip–hop