[29 March 2012]
From his time in Blackalicious through his solo work and various collaborations, Gift of Gab has stood out for his rhymes, his vocabulary, and his flow. Whether he’s rapping over jazz-influenced beats, soul samples, or outer space effects, Gab’s gotten a generally positive message across in memorable ways. All that’s still present on The Next Logical Progression, but he’s made this record as accessible as anything he’s done in a long time and, in simplifying things, he’s taken a step forward.
The beats here come from a collaboration with musician G Koop, and were largely driven by Gab’s humming, which Koop then turned into the recordings. The album stays away from the spacier sounds that Gab’s used in the past, and gets its best traction when it closes in on Stevie Wonder territory. There’s a throwback feel to a few of these tracks, but the record still sounds vibrant.
The album doesn’t have sort of high concept that Escape 2 Mars did, but it does work around a theme. Gab’s essentially giving his listeners a message of opportunity, but only while acknowledging the strictures that keep us from complete freedom. “Dream Warrior” gives a seemingly banal chorus about “possibilities you can’t out rule”, but the verses show Gab’s empathy and awareness, focusing on characters who “were never taught to dream”. The track lacks Gab’s notable verbal techniques (particularly the jammed lines that change direction on a word’s multiple meanings), but the straightforward narratives make the message direct and realistic.
“Rise” serves as a rallying cry to help us resist these conditions. Gab raps, “Rise, mighty warrior, rise / Rise again / Maybe one day we’ll merge with the god within,” urging his listeners and fellow rappers to a spiritual path, even while acknowledging the limitations of making such statements in a business situation, tied to the music business. One of his guest vocalists asks, “Can I scream ‘God’ and at the same time ‘Pay me!’ / ... if I talk about ladies and how I want to do ‘em is the whole song ruined / … / Can I study Rumi and quote Too Short?” It sums up the contradictions of being honest and expressive while trying to promote a positive message.
On the following track “Protocol”, Gab demonstrates the situation. Over a happy, bouncy beat, he offers a series of violent images as metaphors for how he’ll take down other rappers, including murder and “rape y’all / Deliverance”. The hook even has the sweetly sung threat, “One by one I’ll kill you all.” Gab’s flow here is quick and manic, bouncing from image to image, and totally engrossing, but the content doesn’t fit with the rest of the album, making it that much more effective.
Other songs further ground Gab’s message as coming out of a reality that doesn’t truly offer the sort of freedom he espouses. The jokey number “Wack But Good People” reveals not only the limits of talent but the limits of self-awareness and the impossibility of helping people beyond a certain degree. “Effed Up” discusses a variety of bad relationships and appraises our inability to escape bitterness and gleeful schadenfreude, which can be problematic even if the feeling is well-earned. As much as Gab points out that failing most of us have experienced, he also encourages us to think about it and transcend it.
With that sort of thinking, we’re not left with a hard realism, though. For its closing numbers, the album returns to its uplifting message, breaking out of these strictures as far as possible. “So So Much” cuts right to it: “Everybody got a purpose / God is the employer and we’re all just workers / Why do bad things happen to good people? / The warfare is spiritual and, soldier, God needs you.” It’s a succinct four lines that encapsulates Gab’s recurring argument on the disc that each person has a purpose while offering a sound answer to one of life’s great existential questions. The rest of the verse would be worth quoting except that the entire rest of the verse is worth quoting, as Gab explores how we present our divine nature, where we see God’s benevolence, and where we see evidence of the divine work. Although much of this language sounds Christian, there’s no delineated faith here, and certainly no proselytizing.
Closing number “Beyond Logic” continues the idea of the miraculous in regular life, even in our existence, shifting from the marvel of being here to the wonders possible when we embrace that knowledge. Calling this awareness “the next logical progression”, Gab expounds on the value of this spiritual thinking, concluding that “You are here to enable the divine purpose of the universe to unfold / You are that important.” It’s a highly optimistic viewpoint, but it’s one born out of challenging (if universal) experiences, and presented in that context. It might not be miraculous, but The Next Logical Progression is certainly an inspired work.