In a record store not so long ago, I noticed the latest from El-P, Fantastic Damage, sitting on a shelf. A sticker on the front advertised that a certain prominent hip-hop magazine had declared that the "Def Jux CEO" had crafted a wonderful record. Whether or not he has is beside the point right now. Of more concern to me, and hopefully to every other person who was a hip-hop fan before the bling era began, is the triumph of the Wall Street mentality in hip-hop marketing, and likewise, the music, these days. El-P is responsible for "Patriotism", featured on 1999's Soundbombing, Vol. 2, one of the hardest tracks this side of Chuck D. Yet the highest accolade he can receive from the music press is that he is the CEO of his own record label? In this era of rap impresarios, of Puff Daddys and Master Ps and Jay-Zs and Jermaine Dupris, all of us, even the formerly radical El-P, have been duped into thinking that balancing a ledger book deserves more cred than rocking a track. Where did we go wrong?
It's even more of a shame, because so few "progressive" artists have managed any staying power in the post-bling era. Think back to 1994. Record store bins were crowded with Tribe's Midnight Marauders, the Digable Planets' Blowout Comb, the Pharcyde's Bizarre Ride II . . ., Common Sense's Resurrection, to name a few. A few short years later, all of those bands had disappeared or ceased to be relevant, and no one took their place. There was a parade of would-be saviors of hip-hop, but something went amiss each time. Perhaps the saga of Common is most illustrative. His "I Used To Love H.E.R." was among the first of a new genre -- a song about what was wrong about hip-hop. His observations on the state of hip-hop circa 1994 sound just as relevant today: "But once the man got you well he altered her native / Told her if she got an image and a gimmick / That she could make money, and she did it like a dummy / Now I see her in commercials, she's universal / She used to only swing it with the inner-city circle / Now she be in the 'burbs licking rock and dressing hippie /And on some dumb shit, when she comes to the city". In 1994, prior to the No Limit army, and Puffy and Mase, and the era of pre-pubescent rap stars, the disaffected found an anthem with "I Used To Love H.E.R." So when Common's next record, One Day It'll All Make Sense, was set to drop, this nascent movement was ready for a masterpiece. Instead, what they got was adult-contemporary hip-hop. History would suggest that the "progressive" hip-hop artist does not exist in nature in an inert state. The few that can manage to survive to a second record all too often capitulate to industry pressures (see Wyclef Jean), or degrade into a "mature" hip-hopper.
All of this is but a long prologue to set the stakes for what is on the table with the release of Blackalicious' second LP, Blazing Arrow. From the same Solesides/Quannum camp that produced DJ Shadow, the pair known as Blackalicous presented themselves as The Answer with 2000's Nia. While the "mature" sound that plagues Common and others seeped into their work at times as well, one could simply not deny the overwhelming, brick-to-the-head force of their first 12" off the album, "A to G", with "Alphabet Aerobics" as the B-side. For those who missed it, it was a masterwork, alliterative throughout, as the Gift of Gab simply destroyed a track produced by Chief X-Cel. A sample: "Crazy character, constantly creating concontions / Catalyst, a cannabalistic rhymes conqueror / Correctly connecting, craniums crumble down / Consistent capacity . . ." So it went from A to G, as the title suggests. Yet the LP also manages to go beyond lyrical dexterity, reaching that elusive plane where talented MCs actually say something, a phenomenon that occurs all too infrequently.
So it was with much trepidation that I dropped the needle on their latest effort. If they were going to go down the same route that so many of their peers had prior to them, I'd rather just pass Blazing Arrow up and remember the glory days, as it were, of 2000. The introduction, though, wouldn't let me get away. Harkening back to the vintage funk and soul that label mate Shadow is so well known for, the keys supply the groove while the metaphor is introduced that drives the rest of the record: "I've got my arrow / I've got my bow I've got my fire / And I'm walking through the darkness slowly on a tightrope wire". The bassline literally pulls you into the rest of the album, and by the time the first thirty seconds are over, and the second track has begun, you realize you are in for the long haul.
The Gift of Gab doesn't disappoint: "I was on the old safe surface, figure out your purpose that's impossible / But logic will disturb the thought or focus what it's not is all about / The grow about the kind of onus only god can know". They put it all on the table with the simple hook to the song, sampled from Harry Nilsson's "Me and My Arrow": "Me and my arrow / Taking the high road". Without sacrificing the rest of the album to make the point, as did Cee-Lo on his latest effort, Blackalicious still lets the listener know where they are coming from, and more precisely, where it is that they are headed.
They reach this same point on other tracks on the record. Gift's lyrical ability is focused by a superb track from Xcel, and the duo manage the rare feat of keeping heads bobbing while leaving the listener with more than she had when she turned the track on. On "Nowhere Fast", a head-nodder with a drum line supplied by ?uestlove, Gift of Gab raps to a former lover: "So treat to just a slice of heaven why you cheat me? / Deceive me and now I'm hell inside these thoughts that link me / To flesh the soul it's bound to I was truly made to be free". In lyrics like this, he manages to be grown-up without sacrificing his "flow". Unfortunately, Blackalicious hasn't mastered consistency. At least four tracks on the record are throwaways. Others fall victim to the guest MC syndrome. Appearances from fellow West Coast hip-hoppers Charlie 2na (Jurassic 5) and Rakaa (Dilated Peoples) detract from the focus of the album as a whole. Cameos by Gil Scot-Heron and Ben Harper have little impact on the record. And, just as Blackalicious devoted an entire track to a reading of a Nikki Giovanni poem on Nia, Saul Williams appears to perform a piece on "Release part 1, 2, & 3".
In the end, though, it boils down to how hard Blackalicious can rock it. While they may be a little older, and a little more circumspect, they are still at their best when Gift of Gab just lets loose, as on "Paragraph President" and "Chemical Calisthenics" (which reunites him with Cut Chemist, the producer behind "Alphabet Aerobics"). Tracks like this ensure that Blazing Arrow won't be confined to the adult-contemporary bin. While they sail on their arrow above the scrum below, they still manage to drop enough science, literally, to prove that they aren't just another aspirant to the throne.