n armchair sociology moment: the "backpack" vs "jiggy" wars of the late 90s when the Rawkus kids played it on some Italian-army-circa-1943 ish and deserted their losing cause with remarkable speed. Nowadays, they all listen to The Crunk, and fill their poorly researched MP3 blogs with all manner of japes, such as the illusion that Mike Jones isn't actually a piece of absurdist performance art, and quoting Lil Jon's hysterical catchphrases "Yes," "That would be OK," and "How you doin'?" at length, in place of any actual, you know, understanding or analysis.
You can see why those kids departed though: the only ones that have got new on the underground since those heady days of 99 are either Okayplayer chin-strokers or the "Yes, because everyone really loved that DMX/Marilyn Manson duet" children over at Psycho Logical. As for those the backpackers were saluting in those days, Jurassic 5 have lost it, People Under The Stairs never had it, and Mos Def... yeah. So, last men standing, the final survivors on a desolate wasteland, with their fanbase down to the students and the purists (but, remember, that's more enough to shift 100k without trying), are Blackalicious. And they've deigned to throw "The Craft" upon us.
There's a great story in the latest Hip Hop Connection about how Gift of Gab (black version of Keith from The Office, recovering alcoholic) and Chief Xcel (the George Harrison to Gab's, ummm, other George Harrison) refused to pose with a pack of playing cards during a photoshoot for the magazine. So, what does that mean for this album then? Blackalicious aren't playing games anymore? Blackalicious have never been ones to gamble? Or are they just a bunch of mardy anhedonics? Well, all three really.
There's nothing in the vein of "Alphabet Aerobics" here, this album is simply about the laying down of the Gospel According to Gab, one that's a lot more, shall we say, "Mosh" than "Without Me." They're putting the world to rights. Over the spaceship funk of opener "World of Vibrations" he says, "Let me speak the opposite of what's hot now," and that's how it goes for the 'licious: they're reactionary, they thrive on rapping into the wind, and are more than happy to make a living as the shadow cabinet of hip-hop. You suspect they wouldn't know what to do if they took power.
But when you get past all the baggage, it's an enjoyable album. Gab and Xcel have the same kind of hive-mindset that Run, DMC, and Jay had at their peak, so even when he runs out of things to say (pointing out that he's going on holiday to India after they've recorded the album springs to mind), you can just sit back and admire at what the words sound like. He's uniquely effortless as an MC, and on tracks like "Rhythm Sticks" he runs through the MC assault course without barely breaking a sweat. It's MCing as vocal instrumentation, admittedly, but damn it's good to listen to.
Sometimes the after school special feel of it takes its toll ("The Fall and Rise of Elliot Brown," in particular depresses you so much with tedium during Elliot's fall that you can't bring yourself to care at his rise), and George Clinton pops up on "Lotus Flower," which must have been nice to record, but still doesn't excuse the fact that it comes across like pretentious hippie bullshit.
But they win you back, because that's what underdogs do: they eventually win. And no doubt this album is intended to be played live as the token rap act at rock festivals, and hands will no doubt be raised ironically in the air during it, but it cuts mustard on the home level as well. The mainstream doesn't beckon.
Reviewed by: Dom Passantino
Reviewed on: 2005-09-30