Stark, intimate, and crammed with difficult truths, Kae Tempest's third album holds up a mirror to reveal our most vulnerable reflections. Like a beat reporter to the soul, the London native investigates with uncanny intuition the interior dialogues, self-destructive habits, and beautiful follies of human nature and spits them back at us in gut-punch moments of warning, recognition, and clarity. Nearly three years on from 2016's similarly affecting Let Them Eat Chaos, The Book of Traps and Lessons arrives at an even grimmer moment in time, traversing rampant racism, social media escapism, political division, climate change, and Britain's ongoing post-Brexit struggles. While each of those subjects can be found within this 11-song cycle, their immediacy is balanced by the lingering sentiments of solidarity and love. Set to an elegantly minimalist backdrop of pianos, organs, strings, and textured beats by longtime collaborator Dan Carey and tonal field guide Rick Rubin, Tempest inhabits the mic with their signature nuance, fluidly transitioning between spoken word and rapped verse as each song segues deftly into the next. They play the various roles of narrator, confessor, confidant, and prophet, warning that "we should be fasting two days out of seven, sleeping in shifts with the others who share our households" but are instead "online, venting our outrage, teaching the future that life is performance and vanity." Effectively delivered a cappella with no music or beat, that bleak centerpiece "All Humans Too Late" gets its counterweight in the defiant "Hold Your Own," which advises to "know the wolves that hunt you, in time they will be the dogs that bring your slippers, love them right." Tempest's talent in the literary world as a poet, novelist, and playwright has been justly celebrated, but they are still at their best as a performer, delivering their work verbally, lingering here and there, quavering when needed, framing questions, summoning anger, then letting the needle drop right on the beat. Emotionally, there's a lot to unpack, but the need to feel and engage more deeply is one of their primary decrees, and this powerful album is a lesson worth learning.
AllMusic Review by Timothy Monger