If mainstream hip-hop bathes in the nectar of ghetto-fab, bubbling in the fruit extract of glitz, glam, and gore, it only makes sense that the actual morsel, pits, and fleshy ripeness would be waiting, ready for harvest, in a sun-soaked orchard in the Central Valley. The objective of Bay Area duo Blackalicious (MC Gift of Gab and DJ Chief Xcel) is “cleaning out the digestive tract of hip-hop like cranberries.” They aim to break down contents of the poison, spit it out, exorcise all bile from below. “From the root to the fruit, that’s where everything started out,” they proclaim. They even mention kumquats once. Let’s be honest, though: The BRAT diet hasn’t always made for great entertainment.
Nia means to be rap for educated folks, and for educating folks—hip-hop “conscience style.” Picture a proctor at an AA meeting, channeling an MLK Jr. vibe. A spiritually driven sermon about schooling, community service, self-awareness, self-empowerment, you name it honey, Nia embraces everything your momma wants you to grow up and be. Feel the pains of progress: “Peace to everybody striving to live right and exact/Everybody’s got to struggle the way of the world/You can’t develop biceps if you don’t do curls/You can’t achieve a garden if you never water your crops/If you never pay your dues then you don’t get props.” Nia, Swahili for “purpose,” is purposeful in every way. There’s almost too much purpose.
An epic heavy with intention, Nia carries the weight of six years of sweat. In 1994, Blackalicious released their first single, “Swan Lake,” a riff loaded up with ear-candy beats and eclectic interludes, all sewn together neatly by Gab’s laid-back narrative. A year later came Melodica, an EP so steeped in lyrical flexibility it put Gumby to shame. And now, finally, after a handful of collaborations and stopgap steps, comes the twosome’s full-length debut.
Nia is bookended by a prologue and an epilogue that must have been conceived under a tree oozing spiritual sap. Both tracks lilt in duet style, heavy with spoken-word epiphanies. The voices in unison are full of passion and proper pronunciation: “The struggle is a blessing, progressing, changing, evolving, growing from a seed to a tree, no beginning, no end.” An earnest, pure message; godly hip-hop about the cycle of life and creation and belief in what’s beyond the beyond, unafraid to get all up in the circle-time kumbaya of it all. Like Berkeley in the ’60s—the myth of it, anyway—minus acid in your coffee and free love for breakfast.
“Deception” tells the story of Cisco, a Joe Blow rapper tainted by the spoils of celebrity and lifestyle payoffs. His first single was an overnight wonder, but “it got to the point where he lost proper perspective.” Feels like a pinky-swear promise that Blackalicious will never succumb to mainstream success themselves—and if they do, they won’t be deluded by 14k, Lexus SUVs, or gun-toting bodyguards. “If you’re blessed with a talent, utilize it to the fullest/Be true to yourself and stay humble/Don’t let money change you.” The song ambles along in a classic work-chant cadence, as if Blackalicious were laying railroad tracks, offering sage advice as sideline spirits. Once again, Gab and X—tag team to the virtuous—trumpet diligence and hard work. Are these the same guys who brought “40 Oz. for Breakfast” to the world? What happened to the high life?
Blackalicious have matured. But who wants to listen to 18 cuts of preaching? There’s only so much goodness a single album can take. The most lucid moment on Nia is “Cliff Hanger,” where the duo allow themselves the freedom of fantasy. DJ Shadow produces its underbelly like a breathless romance novel. He circumcises beats like a rabbi in heat, ushering Gab into a frenzied whirl of barracudas, karate chops, and secret passageways. Clearly, being “real” isn’t nearly as much fun as racing through rhymes while dodging crossbows and catapults. Likewise, in “Smithzonian Institute of Rhyme,” a wandering Egyptian flute, laced with seductive mantras, weaves like a snake charming its way in and out of a ceramic jug. Lyrics feed the beats, which in turn feed the lyrics, which in turn continue the circulation; the dialogue of rhythm and rhyme reaches a level of hypnotic symbiosis that just can’t be earthly.
Mainstream hip-hop lionizes all things urban and real, so it makes sense that this brand of opposition emerges from suburbia. Gab and X began in the bowels of Davis, California, an alabaster college town known for livestock and stank manure. Solesides, the precursor to Quannum (the Oakland-based collective of Blackalicious, DJ Shadow, and Latyrx), started in the record-stacked halls of campus radio station KDVS. Davis is barely on the map—you could drive right past its fields, past the ramshackle back-road bars not really on any road at all, without blinking; you wouldn’t even change the radio station as the housing developments changed from beige to taupe off the I-5. So Blackalicious rap as outsiders. “From time to time, a brother asks why the rhyme is not laced with a gangsta touch,” Gab relates in “Shadow Days.” “I said simply, I don’t live that way/I said I won’t contribute to genocide/I’d rather cultivate the inside and try to evolve the frustrated ghetto mind/The devil and his army never been a friend of mine.” Molding ghetto minds finds Blackalicious steeped in noble intentions, but how effective is reshaping urban America from a distance? Aside from their beats, are Blackalicious really much more than an after-school special?
Quannum Projects: 360 Grand Avenue, suite 145, Oakland, CA 94610, quannum.com.
Blackalicious play S.O.B.’s June 4.