The Gift of Gab: Fourth-Dimensional Rocketships Going Up

Matt Cibula

The Gift of Gab

Fourth-Dimensional Rocketships Going Up

Label: Quannum Projects
US Release Date: 2004-05-11
UK Release Date: Available as import

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!

From drunken masters to rumbles in the Bronx, Jackie Chan's career is chock full of goofs and kicks. These ten films capture what makes Chan so magnetic.

Jackie Chan got his first film role way back in 1976, when a rival producer hired him for his obvious action prowess. Now, nearly 40 years later, he is more than a household name. He's a brand, a signature star with an equally recognizable onscreen persona. For many, he was their introduction into the world of Hong Kong cinema. For others, he's the goofy guy speaking broken English to Chris Tucker in the Rush Hour films.

From his grasp of physical comedy to his fearlessness in the face of certain death (until recently, Chan performed all of his own stunts) he's a one of a kind talent whose taken his abilities in directions both reasonable (charity work, political reform) and ridiculous (have your heard about his singing career?).

Now, Chan is back, bringing the latest installment in the long running Police Story franchise to Western shores (subtitled Lockdown, it's been around since 2013), and with it, a reminder of his multifaceted abilities. He's not just an actor. He's also a stunt coordinator and choreographer, a writer, a director, and most importantly, a ceaseless supporter of his country's cinema. With nearly four decades under his (black) belt, it's time to consider Chan's creative cannon. Below you will find our choices for the ten best pictures Jackie Chan's career, everything from the crazy to the classic. While he stuck to formula most of the time, no one made redundancy seem like original spectacle better than he.

Let's start with an oldie but goodie:

10. Operation Condor (Armour of God 2)

Two years after the final pre-Crystal Skull installment of the Indiana Jones films arrived in theaters, Chan was jumping on the adventurer/explorer bandwagon with this wonderful piece of movie mimicry. At the time, it was one of the most expensive Hong Kong movies ever made ($115 million, which translates to about $15 million American). Taking the character of Asian Hawk and turning him into more of a comedic figure would be the way in which Chan expanded his global reach, realizing that humor could help bring people to his otherwise over the top and carefully choreographed fight films -- and it's obviously worked.

9. Wheels on Meals

They are like the Three Stooges of Hong Kong action comedies, a combination so successful that it's amazing they never caught on around the world. Chan, along with director/writer/fight coordinator/actor Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao, all met at the Peking Opera, where they studied martial arts and acrobatics. They then began making movies, including this hilarious romp involving a food truck, a mysterious woman, and lots of physical shtick. While some prefer their other collaborations (Project A, Lucky Stars), this is their most unabashedly silly and fun. Hung remains one of the most underrated directors in all of the genre.

8. Mr. Nice Guy
Sammo Hung is behind the lens again, this time dealing with Chan's genial chef and a missing mob tape. Basically, an investigative journalist films something she shouldn't, the footage gets mixed up with some of our heroes, and a collection of clever cat and mouse chases ensue. Perhaps one of the best sequences in all of Chan's career occurs in a mall, when a bunch of bad guys come calling to interrupt a cooking demonstration. Most fans have never seen the original film. When New Line picked it up for distribution, it made several editorial and creative cuts. A Japanese release contains the only unaltered version of the effort.

7. Who Am I?

Amnesia. An easy comedic concept, right? Well, leave it to our lead and collaborator Benny Chan (no relation) to take this idea and go crazy with it. The title refers to Chan's post-trauma illness, as well as the name given to him by natives who come across his confused persona. Soon, everyone is referring to our hero by the oddball moniker while major league action set pieces fly by. While Chan is clearly capable of dealing with the demands of physical comedy and slapstick, this is one of the rare occasions when the laughs come from character, not just chaos.

6. Rumble in the Bronx

For many, this was the movie that broke Chan into the US mainstream. Sure, before then, he was a favorite of film fans with access to a video store stocking his foreign titles, but this is the effort that got the attention of Joe and Jane Six Pack. Naturally, as they did with almost all his films, New Line reconfigured it for a domestic audience, and found itself with a huge hit on its hands. Chan purists prefer the original cut, including the cast voices sans dubbing. It was thanks to Rumble that Chan would go on to have a lengthy run in Tinseltown, including those annoying Rush Hour films.

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