[16 June 2004]
There is no more accomplished wordsmith in all of hip-hop than the Gift of Gab. I formed this opinion back in 1998, when his group Blackalicious (he’s the rapper, Chief X-Cel is the DJ) released their debut album, Nia, and it was confirmed for me in 2002 when their record Blazing Arrow blew me the hell away. And nothing on this, Gift’s first solo record, changes my opinion one bit. Purely and simply, no one can touch this man in terms of pure lyrical skill and employment of cleverly-connected vocabulary words in the service of ideas.
Unfortunately, there is a lot more to hip-hop than just verbal dexterity. But we’ll get to that later. For now, let’s just celebrate the work of Gift, who is a very nice and very intelligent person with mad skillz.
“Rat Race”: “All the bull stops here, I’m the matador / Here to introduce a new rap catagor’ / Climb the top of my music, I’m Matterhorn / Rhyme for rhyme, you don’t really wanna battle, boy / Just another clip added in my catalog / Get your money, young playa, I ain’t mad at y’all / Here to bring soul like Stace Lattislaw”... and he just keeps going after that. It’s not just that he can come up with twenty variations on “matador” as a rhyme; it’s not just the internal echoes of “wanna” and “added”, in “rap” and “clip”; it’s more that we follow along with him, every phrase leading into the next, a cut-up text in context with convex subtext as pretext. (Whoa, dude, he’s got me doing it. Sorry.)
“Evolution”: “Breakneck speed of thought / Adrenaline rushin’, expandin’ / Sendin’ vibrations into the hollowness of canyons / Open and shallow, the blind and deaf is identity / Man, the plenty need healin’ / You’re focused on your credibility? / “Streetwise,” okay, we believe you, now what? / Where do we go from here? / Fourth dimensional rocketships going up.” This is Gift at his most Gift-ed, a string of ideas from how fast and deep he is straight into gently dissing hardcore rappers (while still giving them props, the Gift is not about hate) and then zoom, boom, off to the moon, the cosmic always trumps the concrete in a Gift of Gab rhyme.
So many examples, so little time. In “Flashback” he uses John Sebastian’s theme from “Welcome Back, Kotter” to reminisce about his childhood, dropping references like breadcrumbs leading out of a German forest: “The Great Space Coaster” to “beach cruiser” bikes to Rakim’s “Microphone Fiend” to passing love notes in homeroom without blinking an eye, it’s all the same when you’re drifting through your memories. In “Stardust” he compares “bling bling” to the “bang bang” in “Rapper’s Delight” (to the latter’s credit, duh), refers to his third eye being dunked in “liquid acid,” and then starts flying around the universe like Rakim did in “Follow the Leader.”
Hmmmm… the two Rakim references… I wonder what we’re really talking about here. Yeah, Gift courts that title of Most Complex Wordsmith Working Today, and yeah, he takes it. No one works harder on constructing his paths through verses than The GOG, he’s the gold standard right now, the way Rakim was back in the day. Twista’s are faster, Quannum-mate Lyrics Born’s are deeper, but no one’s rhymes are trickier and more Roget-riffic than those spit by The Gift of Gab. If you are a poet, you need this; if your idea of rap is Vocab Über Alles, you need this; if you are an activist convinced of the power of words to communicate left-wing thinking to “the youth,” you need this badly.
But for me this album is not that much fun to listen to. It’s not the tracks, really—well, it kind of is. It’s not that this music here is so much inferior to the Blackalicious albums; Chief X-Cel is a good DJ, sure, but these tracks are pretty nicely constructed on that whole jazz-rap-soul tip. No, it’s more that more interesting and fun production can be found virtually everywhere else across the hip-hop spectrum, and neither Gift nor the Chief seem very interested in exploring that. It’s all very tasteful and easy-listening and smooth, and it sounds great… but only small-g great, not Capital-G Great. And I’m into Capital-G Great these days, because why not?
That’s not it, though. Here’s what it is for me: The Gift of Gab would be the ideal friend, a wonderful guy to sit and have coffee with, the kind of dude (as he proved on the Lyrics Born solo record from last year) you want to be able to call up and bitch about stuff to, because he maintains in the face of adversity. He cares about the environment, he still reaches out to his locked-up nephew (in the amazing and touching “In a Minute Doe”), he’s friends with a woman before he macks on her; hell, he even quit smoking!
So this, ultimately, is mostly a concept album about the perfection of The Gift of Gab. He’s not really rapping—he says he’s channeling the voices of the ancestors. He doesn’t get upset about bad things that happen—he knows life has its struggles, but that if you stay strong and listen to him, everything’s going to be okay. It’s all very confident and positive… these are good things. But I distrust anyone who claims to have all the answers, and that’s exactly what’s happening here. Hell, on one song he schools an foreign cab driver who claims that Americans shouldn’t complain because poor people around the world would love to live in our worst ghettos; it’s a good point, but Gift dismisses it out of hand, telling him instead about all the wrongs he has to right here at home, like self-hate and kids in gangs. What could end up being a fascinating Socratic dialogue ends up just being another excuse for a Gift of Gab verbal smackdown: I know more than you about America AND the rest of the world AND life AND how to live it. So there.
This is a smugger Gift than I have heard before, one less interested in the questions than in the answers. Me, I like the questions, and I don’t need a new messiah to lead me out of the darkness and into the promised land. I embrace uncertainty in an MC, because that more mirrors where my head is at. The ones with all the answers… well, they don’t need listeners, or followers, because they might “Flashback” but they never look back. As long as The Gift of Gab knows everything, he doesn’t need me, except as a student who sits patiently while he lectures me and the whole class. And I didn’t sign up for that class. It might be the prettiest, wittiest, best-thought-out lecture in the whole world. But that doesn’t make for much empathy, for real human feeling, even for soul.
Maybe that’s why every other track mentions those fourth dimensional rocketships going up he’s searching for a purer, nobler, more perfect group of people than the ones we have down here on earth.
But that’s where I live!