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|14. The Craft|
With their third full-length, Blackalicious have produced a record of such sonic depth and lyrical ambition that it can proudly stand alongside the work of Bay Area funk fathers Sly Stone and Shuggie Otis, or hip-hop classics like Outkast's Aquemini and The Roots' Things Fall Apart. But The Craft isn't nostalgic for some golden era that never existed. Lyricist Gab moves beyond the introspection of earlier albums, and musically, Xcel accomplishes beats that touch on classic funk sidling cosily alongside the orchestral sweep of Stereolab. Features guest appearances by George Clinton, Floetry, Lateef The Truth Speaker, and Pigeon John. Anti. 2005.
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In 2003-2004, Quannum records did no wrong. Albums by The Lifesavas, Lyrics Born, The Maroons, and Gift of Gab garnered widespread acclaim and catapulted the record label to a new level. An absolutely mind-blowing, life-altering, existence-reaffirming tour with nearly the whole crew displayed the cohesiveness, brotherhood, and outright talent of this label.
One cannot deny, though, the significant role that Blackalcious' Nia and Blazing Arrow played in giving 2003-2004 the forum in which to shine. I remember hearing of Blackalicious on a very obscure Philly jamband's listeserv, and within a year, Best Buy was advertising Blazing Arrow in their newspaper inserts. Added to that, the inspiring, smooth as silk vocal delivery and classic funk-based beats hooked this listener immediately, making this duo one of my favorite hip-hop acts of all time.
The Craft continues in the spirit of its parents. Well, probably more like ancestors, as The Craft is more of a logical progression than the progeny of the last two efforts.
Once again, music masters Gift of Gab and Chief X-Cel focus heavily on expanding the evident influences, and styles of music. "Powers" is a 70s soul/funk masterpiece which, at moments, brings to mind many modern electronic (by no means techno!) and Dirty South hip-hop tones.
Many other tracks, like "Side to Side", "The Fall and Rise of Elliott Brown" (which is also one of the obligatory Gift at lightspeed tracks), and "Egosonic War Drums" (THE obligatory lightspeed track) also represent a voyage into un-chartered territories, and all with success.
"Black Diamonds and Pearls" with its well known vocal sample, and "Rhythm Sticks" display that well-known Blackalicious sound I fell in love with.
So, the end result of it all? I can't rate this album as high as the two classics that came before it. Though I enjoy the new experimenting, and as always, the unparalleled flow of Gift combined with meticulous mixing and sample research from the Chief, on a whole, I don't feel the impact of the album as I did with the last two. It's not that this album is not worth your time or money, it is, and will be more so than many other hip-hop albums released this year. It's just that listening to Nia and Blazing Arrow is an experience of musical transcendence, and The Craft is a collection of really great songs. The old albums portray vivid identities, and The Craft impresses with its variety, and signature, unrivaled skill.
I really want to give this album four stars, simply because of the difference in how it first hit me compared to the previous two, but I realize that could be due to the fact that I am now used to Chief and Gift's remarkable ability, while the first two were purchased at the same time. In addition, I have yet to listen to a Quannum album without first thinking that there were just a number of great songs, before eventually realizing the entire albums were genius. Stars don't really matter here though (and not simply because of the 20 point differentials Amazon!) because once again, Quannum, Blackalicious, Gift of Gab, and Chief X-Cel have graced us with a refreshing glass of fun, funk, infectious beats, and the best flow in the biz. Time to get your drink on.
After these two tracks, you come across "Rythm Sticks." With concepts reminiscent of "Alphabet Aerobics" and "Chemical Calisthenics," Gab creates an acronym of BLACKALICIOUS that by itself expands your mind. 2 verses later, he spits a verse that few in the hip-hop world are capable of now. Maybe the collective efforts of Jurassic 5, or a Talib Kweli, but they would only be duplications--Gab already did it.
Forget the "commercialization" criticism you hear about them bringing in George Clinton and Floetry. If that is commercialization, then everybody you like and can easily get your hands on a CD of is commercial. I'll lay off that criticism until they get a "Chopped and Screwed" version of Nia, which I can confidently assume will never happen. So don't listen to that stuff. The Clinton and Floetry influence isnt even that heavy on the songs they appear on. In fact, the best guest appearance is probably Pigeon John's hilarious verse on "Side to Side". Lateef the Truth Speaker and Gab have flawless verses, but Pigeon John comes in and seals the deal. He describes being in the club and that watching the girls sway on the dance floor makes him "have to pee". Not to mention the fact that Xcel provides the boys with one of the most layered-but-easy-to-dance-to beats on the album.
Of course Gab and Xcel take it more inward the second half of the album, with a message from Gab's sister playing over the end of "The Rise and Fall of Elliot Brown" and the beginning of "Black Diamonds and Pearls" reading a letter describing the state of modern prison. The introspective turn only veers slightly on "Egosonic Wardums", but comes right back with the final title track. Gab probably wont receive many accolades for what his astoundingly personal but creatively-delivered lyricism, but try to imagine the actual writing of the lyrics for "The Craft" and I think you will come across a conflicted yet peaceful genius, scribbling out words, sighing, and yet perservering for sake of the quality of the song.
All in all, I recommend this album to anyone, no matter their background in listening to hip-hop. Some songs, albums, and/or artists transcend their genres. Blackalicious' "The Craft" is one of these albums. Pay the $15, listen closely, and be glad you didnt cave in for the new "Fresh out of Houston with diamonds in my teeth and a G.E.D." artists or the "Capitalizing on trends started by artists with actual abilities" artists, and go with the good stuff.
First of all, "The Craft" is a digression from their previous work. Instead of the epic story-telling and quirky and blatant displays of skill, like their songs "Cliffhanger" and "Alphabet Aerobics," "The Craft" took a different route, reaching out to their roots and having a style that was reminiscent from their material on the "Solesides" album. The songs are more stylish than substance and on this album, they just get weirder and somewhat mainstream. Instead of having grand songs of celestial influence, they have chosen to have songs in the style of R & B and a lot more jazz and funk influenced, with numerous songs dependent on the chorus for catchiness. "Powers" is extremely catchy, but it sounds like something that would be played in a Volkswagen commercial. "Rhythm Sticks" is merely a song in which Gab stylishly spells out "BLACKALICIOUS." Gift of Gab truly displays his style of motormouthing, and much of this album sounds like nonsense rather than substance, which is, like I said earlier, reminiscent of their old-school days.
There are no songs that are powerful enough to stand above the rest. There are no grand, epic, specific songs that I immediately fast-forward to on my CD player. However, it is that trait that makes this album unique- it must be listened in its entirety to be fully appreciated, like Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon." The album is extremely more enjoyable when you listen straight through it at once, because the songs' quality and order melt together to form one great piece of work. "World of Vibrations" is an excellent opener, which caught me right away. "Lotus Flower" is just...sublime. "My Pen and Pad" is sexy old school. "Side to Side" is good rhythmic fun. "The Fall and Rise of Elliot Brown" is full of big brass bravado. "Black Diamonds and Pearls" is truly a soulful, precious jewel. And finally, "Give It to You" is just another example of why Gift of Gab is a self-proclaimed "lyrical shogun."
I admit that I didn't like it the first 2 times I heard it because it was so different. But after awhile, it grew on me and I learned to love it. This new approach is different, but extremely appealing. Give it a chance, you'll never regret it.
I dont think the Blackalicious of old would have accepted some of the tripe they dish up at the start of this album. I've invested quite a few bucks on Quannum sounds over the years, and this has been my most disappointing purchase.
That said, when its good, its really, really good. Vintage, timeless... Automatique rocks my socks.
If you're familiar with Blackalicious, buy it anyway. They deserve your loyalty on the basis of services to hip hop. If this is your first album, check the back catalogue.