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One of the most underappreciated things about late-’80s hiphop was the diversity in its production. A group such as Public Enemy could assemble a montage of chaotic samples from sources as disparate as James Brown and Jesse Jackson. Prince Paul, mostly in his work with De La Soul, was a master at creating themes for albums simply through his choice of samples. On his pioneering work with NWA, Dr. Dre revived the old-school practice of having a house band replay samples, producing a cleaner, less digitized sound.
Such techniques are scarcer today; while MCing has not-so-quietly creeped toward the mundane, it has been hiphop production that has really taken a hit. Modern rap tracks are a study in the uninteresting, and a music that was always criticized for its monotony has only become more conformist. But these are dumb days we live in, and with rare exceptions, dumb music has become our everyday soundtrack.
There are, of course, the OutKasts of the world—those rare hiphop artists who actively buck the trend. And you can certainly add Blackalicious to that short list of innovators. The California-based group’s second full-length album, Blazing Arrow, is that uncommon hiphop album that doesn’t sound as if it had been assembled by factory drones. Lush, surprising, and alive, Arrow is the type of album that makes you want to rip the FM dial off your radio. Producer Chief Xcel is never afraid to try out a new sound on any of the 17 tracks: Sometimes he misses, often he hits—but he always approaches a song with a sense of adventure.
Beyond parting from factory hiphop in its musicality, Arrow differs from traditional hiphop in that it’s an album that does not revolve around the MC. Instead, Blackalicious—rapper the Gift of Gab and Chief Xcel—assembles a house of sound built from all manner of aural components. Talk about throwing everything and the kitchen sink at you. Arrow has horns, keys, djembe drums, and an assortment of guests who never distract from the album’s essential message: This is the music of anything.
Moreover, Arrow actually features complete songs, as opposed to a collection of relooped, unaltered samples with different names attached to them. Typical of Chief Xcel’s production is “Nowhere Fast.” The song’s foundation is the same keyboard sample used in Lil’ Kim’s “Crush on You,” but it’s faded in and out, and the cut actually has a bridge when the music changes. Roots drummer ?uestlove also lends his robust drums to the track. The title cut offers another example of excellent use of the unexpected, as Chief Xcel samples dripping water and scratches in the chorus. “Aural Pleasure” gets good mileage out of its reggae keyboard riff and Jaguar Wright’s sultry backing vocals. There’s also “Release,” a nine-minute-plus epic that is essentially three different songs wrapped in one, moving from heavy metal to spoken word to standard rap.
For most of Arrow, Gift’s MCing simply functions as another musical component. As opposed to being the dominant instrument on the album, rapping is just the most consistently used one. Unlike most traditional rap, Arrow treats the MCing as another stone in the mosaic, not the mosaic itself. More than providing insight, Gift’s rhyme style offers a flurry of words that work as added percussion to a track. Rakim he’s not, but he does understand the voice as an instrument.
His rapid-fire staccato flow on “Sky Is Falling” perfectly complements the track’s cascading keys and apocalyptic tone: “The sky is falling, life is appalling, and death is lurking/Niggas killing each other, leaving bodies nobody’s searching for/Juveniles is losing trials, catching a bit of Murder 1/And mothers is drinking and drugging, ho-ing and searching for their son.” Not the most stunning collection of lyrics, sure, but Gift’s perfect pacing and delivery match beautifully with the track.
Gift’s most notable performance comes on “It’s Going Down,” one of the few songs on the album that is traditional in the sense of a battle rap. He seems more at home here, perhaps because competition is so essential to the nature of MCing: “We walking up, and locking up the game, and sparking up the flame/You not going be the same/We not gonna read your brain.”
But the album’s best lyrical performance goes to guest spoken-word artist Saul Williams, who offers the key contribution to “Release,” the album’s three-part epic: “These words are not tools of communication/They are shards of metal dropped from eight-story windows/They are waterfalls and gas leaks, aged thoughts rolled in tobacco leaf.”
Arrow is a collection of songs with seemingly nothing in common except the performer rhyming over, under, and around them—but there is so much to listen to that, during the first few spins, the album overwhelms. Part of it is the sheer number of guest artists (Arrow features everyone from Ben Harper to Dilated Peoples), all of whom blend pretty well with the group’s sound. But it’s also the amount of that sound. It’s a lot to take in, yes, and requires dedicated attention from the listener. But this is hiphop is at its best: full, chaotic, and uncompromising. CP
Blackalicious performs with Jurassic 5 at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 7, at the 9:30 Club, 815 V St. NW. For more information, call (202) 393-0930.