April 24, 2002
Arts and Entertainment
By Oliver Wang
BACK IN THE early '90s, when Blackalicious showed that Davis was more than just a cow town on the way to Sacramento, everybody wanted, expected, big things from Chief Xcel and Gift of Gab. The idea was this: blow up your material independently first and then make the major labels come to you with the deal you want. No compromise. No sellout.
Over the last decade, though, that idea has been worn into little more than nubby clichés. Indie artists like to talk about "the evolution of revolution," but the track record speaks for itself. For indies who went major (Dilated Peoples, Jurassic 5), majors who went indie (Hieroglyphics), and indies who stayed indie (Rasco), most of their albums have been creatively challenged, always appealing to their core audience but unable to branch out far past that. It's only fitting that Blackalicious who helped inaugurate the indie movement in 1995 with their seminal Melodica are the ones to fulfill their promise.
Their new Blazing Arrow, released on MCA Records, is one of the most mature hip-hop albums to come from the Bay since the Hieros' heyday in the early '90s. Blackalicious fuse the creative spark the duo displayed in their years with Solesides/Quannum and the corporate music industry's many production resources, creating a sound that's more fully realized than their ambitious but uneven Nia (Quannum Projects, 2000).
Fans who think of Blackalicious strictly as purveyors of mic pyrotechnics will still get the fireworks display. "Chemical Calisthenics" picks up where "Alphabet Aerobics," from A2G (1999), left off, as Gab puts on a virtuosic performance of his namesake gift over a Cut Chemist track mercurial enough to leave Timbaland in awe. "Paragraph President" and the title track offer more deft displays of lyrical agility set over Xcel's prickly sheets of beats.
But Blazing Arrow is far more than the conventional braggadocio-over-boom-bap routine. Xcel and Gab nail down a soul aesthetic that they started to piece together on Nia not "soul" in terms of Soundscan categories, but soul as the intersection of the pew and the jook, transcendent peace and secular pleasure, introspection and ebullition. On "Make Ya Feel That Way," Gab speaks to the joys of everyday life: "Christmas Day / When your mama got you your first bike / Type of feeling / When you won your first fight / How your team felt / Winning championship games / Celebrate in the huddle / Dancing in this rain." The song strikes a chord for the entire album: happiness without bippiness. "Aural Pleasure" features Jaguar Wright flexing a reggae-infused bounce that's reminiscent of outdoor summer parties. "Day One" is the album's sublime closer, unfolding unhurriedly like a modern day Sly Stone or Earth, Wind and Fire jam. Most provocative is "Release," a nine-and-a-half-minute epic that's really three songs in one, featuring Zack de la Rocha, Saul Williams, and Lyrics Born exhaling emotion and intellect over three vastly different tracks beautifully imagined by Xcel. The fact that Blackalicious dare to craft this aesthetic which doesn't fit in with the ego-gassed tirades of their independent label peers or the glossy materialism of their commercial brethren is what makes the album so refreshing.
By today's standards, "good" has become synonymous with merely competent; Blazing Arrow strives to be more than good. In fact it's a great album because it stays committed to its vision: balancing songs that fans want to hear with the songs that Blackalicious want to make. They dare to lead without knowing if others will follow.
That's not to say the album doesn't stumble. Some of the collaborations sound better on paper than in reality, and I was left nonplussed by "First in Flight," featuring poet Gil Scott-Heron, the unexpectedly bloodless "Passion," with guest appearances by Dilated Peoples' Iriscience and DJ Babu, and the generic "It's Going Down," with Lateef and Keke Wyatt. And the album suffers from one truly false moment, "Precious Love," a song so cliché in its rap-R&B schlockularity that I was half expecting Ja Rule and J-Lo to show up for a cameo.
Yet it's a testament to Blazing Arrow's balance and conceptual cohesion that the fact that I dislike a third of the songs doesn't detract from my enjoyment of it as a whole. Over the years hip-hop has retreated into complacently cutting albums as collections of singles. Blackalicious, on the other hand, gamble that you'll accept Blazing Arrow as an album. It stands out as the project we always knew Blackalicious and really, the entire indie cadre they helped nurture could and should make once they were given the keys to the corporate castle. It's been a long time, but finally (at least in this case), the change has come.