Blackalicious: The Craft

[3 October 2005]

By Stephen Stirling

By and large the once holy ideal of an “album” has taken a hit in the last decade or so.

As genres splinter and form new cross-breeds from one another, technology is bounding forward faster than we can comprehend. Struggling to cope, record companies are scrambling get in on the file-sharing market, feverishly licensing their songs to online databases like iTunes for a measly $1 per song. In a landscape where music lovers can point-and-click their way to that hot new Kanye track they heard in the club, the concept of an album presenting itself as one solid entity is fading behind the horizon.

Apparently, Blackalicious didn’t get the memo. Their latest release, The Craft, takes the veteran hip-hop duo’s penchant for verbose musings and adds a healthy serving of funk, soul, and late ‘60s rock to produce an album that aligns with this year’s best.

When pitted against any of Blackalicious’ other four LPs the most notable difference lies in Chief Xcel’s production style. The Craft flaunts a much bolder sound that meshes sampling with live instrumentation. Xcel enlisted an impressive supporting cast for the record, plucking talent from some of hip-hop’s elite. Bassist Teak Underdue (Dead Prez) and percussionist Alfredo Ortiz (Beastie Boys) highlight some of musicians Xcel combined to give lyricist Gift of Gab his strongest foundation to work from yet.

That’s not to say he’d actually need it though. Lyrically, The Craft boasts another strong showing from the group’s resident wordsmith. Darting from topics like transcendental philosophy to kicking game at the club, Gab adds another layer to his now nearly impenetrable reputation for style and innovation. He doesn’t do it alone either. Familiar faces Lyrics Born and Lateef the Truth Speaker are joined by the likes of Floetry and Funk-legend George Clinton to create an imposing collaborative force that flank Gab on several of the album’s 14 tracks.

The result birthed from these two melodic mafias emerges not so much as a collection of segmented installments but an organic, free-flowing musical organism. Xcel’s production seamlessly transitions between tracks while allowing them to still retain their individual identities.

While Xcel’s blueprint for the album included the likes of A Tribe Called Quest’s Low End Theory and Public Enemy’s Yo! Bum Rush the Show, The Craft’s roots run deep into the realms of funk, soul, and rock. Searing guitar riffs, melodic keys, and bass-laden beats litter the album, fusing together to create an unorthodox but effective backbone to its hip-hop foundation. While Xcel’s prevalent production seems a touch excessive at points, by and large it remains in a steady balance with Gab’s driving lyrics.

Even with a more pronounced musical base, Gab’s lyrics still remain the group’s centerpiece. The conscious hip-hop stylings that have often landed Blackalicious with the “Nerd Rap” label don’t cease with the release of The Craft. Gab still wraps his flow in the broad range of observations, life experiences, and philosophies he’s gathered his reputation on. He does so, however, without receding into conscious hip-hop’s pitfalls. The scene’s often stale nature that stems from a reliance on the old adage of “saving hip-hop” rarely surfaces in Gab’s work, and his breadth of knowledge on a myriad of topics consistently keeps his style vacuum-sealed for freshness from album to album.

On The Craft, Gab transitions between driving the beat of the song with his lyrics and riding along with it in the passenger seat. His lyrical dexterity shines on “Rhythm Sticks”, a standout celebratory anthem of artistic creation, and “Lotus Flower”, a decidedly dark George Clinton complemented cut that appears midway through the album. Gab shows that breaking 30 years of age hasn’t tarnished his style, as he’s still possesses the ability to deftly dance around and through a beat, manipulating it as he pleases, a quality that brought him to prominence on the underground hip-hop scene more than 10 years ago with songs like “Alphabet Aerobics”.

While some might argue that hip-hop groups’ experimentation with various musical genres pulls them away from their hip-hop roots, The Craft stands as an example that it is possible to successfully branch out while keeping the roots of your culture alive. Experimentation aside, Blackalicious can still strike that b-boy stance as their work continues to reveal them as one of hip-hop’s most innovative and talented tandems.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/blackalicious-craft/