Blackalicious: Blazing Arrow
n the 2002 Pazz and Jop poll (yes, I am desperate for an entry form this year), Blackalicious’ sophomore album Blazing Arrow placed as the seventh highest ranked hip-hop album, just behind Scarface, and just ahead of Common (in so many ways…). And, for once in the history of mankind, critical consensus hit the nail on the head. Blazing Arrow seemed to be everyone’s seventh favourite hip-hop album in the 02. Nobody was championing it as their rap album of the year, nobody was ripping it into the ground (except for those wacky collegiate former-indie kids who spent November 01 through September 03 pretending to like Roc-A-Fella releases. I’m holding you shitstains directly responsible for Kanye West and Mark Ronson’s sister). It was an album that just existed, didn’t make a great indent on the year, didn’t produce any top 20 hits or club anthems and didn’t alter Hip-Hop.
Blackalicious aren’t the most interesting of bands, and really don’t lend themselves well to written hyperbole. Indeed, trying to deliver 1,000 or so words on them for this article has taken me the best part of a month. Gift of Gab (he’s the MC) and Chief Xcel (he’s the DJ) have somehow overcome the tragedy of involvement in DJ Shadow festival of shite Quannum to become, as they see themselves, the ultimate expression of the union between DJ and MC. And it’s a union that does work, does bear fruit: there isn’t one left behind by the inherent skill of the other, as so often happens with straight MC/DJ partnerships. Earlier work showed their skill, indeed, the Cut Chemist remix of “Alphabet Aerobics” still finds its way onto mixtapes and iTunes playlists today, and with good reason: it’s a honestly breathtaking track. Gab as an MC may not have the best wordplay, punches, or metas, but his delivery style is endlessly notable. Earlier album NIA, whilst also flawed, gave a buzz for Blazing Arrow. Would they deliver a masterpiece?
No, of course not. We wouldn’t be here if they had. There is the germ of a great album within the sprawling 77 minute and 4 second mess that is Blazing Arrow, but nearly 80 minutes is not a good length for an album of this sort. It’s the same complaint that people have been aiming at various hip-hop albums since day dot. 10,12 great tracks are recorded, and then they proceed to sling any half-finished, half-realised rubbish that was hanging about the studio onto the CD. There are 13 guest appearances over 18 tracks, and one of them is from Ben fucking Harper. “Chemical Callisthenics” is a far too obvious attempt at recreating the majesty of “Alphabet Aerobics”, with Cut Chemist back on board, and the A-Z replaced by the periodic element table, but it’s far too obvious, and, like most sequels, it’s a pale imitation of the original track. Four of these tracks go over five minutes in length, which is a bad idea for an act with only two weapons in their arsenal anyway, but Blackalicious can’t turn them into epics, rather just losing focus after the three minute mark and degenerating into nothingness.
But this could be a great album. A little tweaking, a shuffle of the order, downsize the weaker tracks and reintroduce some of the overlooked favourites from the time, and we’d have an album that could grab your attention. A guaranteed 9/10 effort. An album where Blackalicious would finally fulfil their promise. Here, we present the Playing God edition of Blazing Arrow. Scarface won’t know what hit him…
1. Introduction- Bow and Fire
Let’s start at the introduction track; it’s a very good place to start. Run of the mill *cough* “conscious” hip-hop opening track, a few samples that turn up later on in the album, a positive message delivered by the world’s tiniest gospel choir, and an aura of “funk jam” in a “not as bad as the word “funk jam” sounds” way, the same feel the pervades the rest of this album. An aural equivalent to watching the trailer on the DVD before you see the film proper.
2. If I May
OK, so it’s not on the album, and it was released over a year previously, but, damn it, this should be on every Blackalicious album ever. No, scratch that, it should be on every album ever period, being as it is the best hip-hop single of the decade, an unashamedly Isley Brothers influenced tune, simplistic chord progressions on the guitar, a romantically emotionless hook, and Gift of Gab demonstrating perfectly why, in the field of breath control, no rapper comes even close to him. Nobody could turn the album off after they hear this.
3. Make You Feel That Way
The money shot of the original album, and still essential to the Stylus-remix of it. Summertime haziness personified, as Gab simply lists a long stream of positive experiences (“How your team felt when the championship came / Celebrate in a huddle, dancing in this rain”), delivering the title track repeatedly like a mantra, until it transcends cheesiness to become something you can actually believe in. A daisy age track, in the sense that you could spend forever picking flowers to it.
4. Paragraph President
The lazy bastard music journalist feels compelled to compare any rap music that isn’t suitable for soundtracking episodes of Brat Camp to De La Soul. Blackalicious haven’t escaped this affliction, despite the fact that they sound exactly dick all like the Plugs Three, but they do find time to sample the formerly-great pioneers on this track. Talking about a Blackalicious album without going on about Gab’s breath control is akin to a review of “Brothers In Arms” failing to mention Mark’s guitar playing. This track loses points for the line “Hit you with the funk/ It’s like “who cut the provolone?””, because it sounds like a rhyme from the black kid in California Dreams, but regains lost ground with “I’ma coming like Muhammed with the verbal rope-a-dope”. The Dom Passantino Playing God edition of this track omits the incoherent babbling that constitute the final two minutes of this song as well.
5. Blazing Arrow
Bubbling sounds in a rap tune, and I don’t actually think it’s a bong sample. Genius. In the battle of Nillson-sampling tracks from the summer of 2002, this pisses all over “Starry Eyed Surprise” from the top of a large building. And as Jesus Himself said on the cross before He gave Himself up to the Lord, “There are no bad hip-hop tunes with a flute in them”.
6. 4000 Miles (ft Chali 2na and Lateef)
Chali 2na doing a guest spot on a rap album? Who’da thunk it. The man used up all of his good verses on the roughly 6,000 “featuring” tracks he did between 2000 and late 2002, and the end result was “Power In Numbers”. Thanks for that Charles. Anyway, the rapping Lurch is on form here, as is Lateef the Truth Speaker, the wacky next door neighbour in the sitcom that is Blackalicious. This is a posse cut like they used to do in the olden days, and features the line “Even Hammer would say my shit’s proper, word”. Four times better than anything that the Proclaimers ever recorded.
7. First In Flight (feat. Gil Scott-Heron)
Another thing that needs changing with this album is the annoying trick of randomly fading between the left and right speaker, which makes this album near impossible to listen to on headphones without feeling mildly schizophrenic. Similar to “Make You Feel That Way”, except this time it’s a long list of things that are free rather than good. Again, uplifting like Wonderbras, whilst Gil Scott-Heron sounds drunk.
“Showing motherfuckers how to hold a mic right”. Indeed you are Gabbo. Teaming up the sort of horn sample that most R&B-pop; producers would eBay their kidneys for, and rhyme schemes so intricate you actually feel dizzy listening to the track, and you’ve got their best ever b-side, and one that fully deserves promotion to album track. He also does an impression of the Cookie Monster as well. Fuck a Culshaw.
9. It’s Going Down (feat. Lateef and Keke Wyatt)
Choral chanting to kick the track off, and if DangerMouse hadn’t heard this before laying “Born-A-MC” down for Jemini, I’d be very surprised. A weirdly off-key funk (as in “on the offbeats”) beat then kicks in, Lateef pops his head through the door to kick a verse, and Keke Wyatt, in that list of “people rapping with their own stupid real name”, manages the really hard task of being better than Joe Budden and Chi Ali.
10. Sky Is Falling
No Chicken Licken samples, but bass-heavy beats, a driving chorus supplied by the anonymous woman who delivers four or five hooks over the course of the album, and the speed and urgency that Gab delivers his flow with shows a disregard for the need to breathe previously only seen in Linda Lovelace. Possibly about religion.
11. Aural Pleasure (feat. Jaguar Wright)
“Aural Pleasure”. Do you see what they’ve done there? Oh good. Fade in with the horns, Jaguar Wright sounds a bit like jailbait Parkinson-botherer Joss Stone, a good way to start winding the album down. Bassline from Funk 101, but none the worse for it. Weird tempo-shift around 2:20 into the track which results in GoG saying “Aural pleasure, y’all” repeatedly, which is the least sexy moment in musical history.
12. Green Light: Now Begin
Elaborate intro. “Considering this is called “Green Light: Now Begin”, shouldn’t you have put it near the start of the album?” I hear you ask. Well, the boys themselves slotted it in at track five, so, no. He doesn’t sound like he’s beginning anything here though. Putting it on track 12 on our version works similarly to the way that, when you’re at the gym, the treadmill needs to slow down slowly, or else you end up going face-first into the wall.
13. Passion (ft Rakaa & Babu)
“An open microphone can be dangerous” says the opening sample. And you thought every sample from a 1950s audio equipment instruction LP had already been used. Best known in music circles as the track where Gift of Gab pronounces “heroin” as “heh-row-wahn”. Babu steps up to provide a nice few noodley touches, whilst Rakaa informs us that “Critics that don’t get it, I tell ‘em to stop bitching”. Charmed, I’m sure. We do get it Rakaa. It’s just you didn’t exactly make it easy for us.