In retrospect, it’s pretty shocking that a hip hop record like Blazing Arrow was released on a major label in 2002. As many compromises as there were (and they were present in the form of Ben Harper and Jaguar Wright, amongst others), it was still a very artistic offering that was more concerned with quality than having a hit, despite having a very accessible, relatively polished sound. And that pretty much sums up Blackalicious. This is what makes the duo’s latest, The Craft, kind of shocking.
Not that Chief Xcel and the Gift of Gab have gone way off in right field and gone crunk or anything. It’s just a bit surprising to hear a Blackalicious album that’s more easily compared to The Roots’ Phrenology as opposed to Things Fall Apart and it just takes some getting used to, that’s all. Chief Xcel has seemingly stripped down his sound. In contrast to his past philosophy of layering instruments upon instruments, it seems now he is more intrigued by creating bigger productions with less sounds. What was once a four- or five-piece brass section is now a single keyboard or guitar riff. And his drum kit programming, while getting a bit more funked up, still remains some of the best in hip hop. And as for Gab…well, if it ain’t broke, right?
Right out of the gate, this album is raw, unrestrained, (perhaps purposely) unpolished and just downright funk-ay. The one-two combination punch of “World of Vibrations” and “Supreme People” is an absolutely captivating introduction. “World of Vibrations” is especially interesting since it is representative of the entire album. One of two songs on the album featuring Bay Area crooner Ledisi, the song is divided into two movements, the first being the most typical and the second breaking into a stubbornly funky rhythm track that is laced by pure, unmistakable guitar distortion (and pretty much every song on the album features at least a bit of that ol’ wah-wah sound). “World of Vibrations” pronounces the heavy influence of Parliament Funkadelic, which graces the entire album.
The album unfortunately falls into a slight lull after “Rhythm Sticks” (which makes the George Clinton featured “Lotus Flower” all the more disappointing) but it is revived with a vengeance on the second half, starting with the middle trilogy of “Automatique,” “The Fall & Rise of Elliot Brown” and “Black Diamonds & Pearls”. After that, the album’s bar is collectively raised as each song passes and it escalates further until the album finally apexes with the title track. It is on par with their best moments and is a perfectly fitting cadence for the album that precedes it.
In the end, Blackalicious delivers yet again, proving they are the ultimate hip hop perfectionists. The Craft, while being arguably their “worst” record (though not a bad record by any means) is still miles ahead of most of their contemporaries. Only Blackalicious would include a pseudo-funk/soul/rap lovesong like “Powers” (which isn’t an entire success, but they gave it a shot, which is admirable) on the same record as the straight MC rhymin’-for-the-sake-of-rhymin’ track “My Pad & Pen” and see nothing wrong with the obvious contradictions. I’d like to be able to say that records like these are common in the company of boundary-pushing peers like OutKast and The Roots, but even amongst that crowd, Blackalicious still stands as a unique entity. They’ve let loose another truly artistic piece onto the hip-hop landscape. The Craft will no doubt be seen as another win in the Blackalicious streak.