oming out of nowhere to surprise everyone with their excellent full-length debut Nia, Blackalicious (Gift of Gab and Chief Xcel) meshed very well to create multifaceted tracks that held up excellently after repeated listens. While many may not have been amazed with their first listen of Nia, the CD was one of the few to get better with repeated listens, due to its depth. It may not have been the best album of all time, but it holds its place as a classic debut. However, many artists have let down with their second album, even great ones like Jay-Z, Wu-Tang, and Nas. Can Blackalicious continue its hot streak, or is Blazing Arrow another example of the sophomore slump?
A good amount of the production on Nia was handled by Chief Xcel. While the production was not exceptional or innovative, it served its job of leaving most of the focus on Gift of Gab, one of the top MCs in the game. Nia’s top moment was the DJ Shadow produced “Cliff Hanger”, but the rest of the CD was certainly the substance. Blazing Arrow is almost exactly the same way. ?uestlove, DJ Hi-Tek, and Cut Chemist all provide good beats that Gift of Gab sounds great over, but the album wouldn’t be nearly as good as it is without the majority of the tracks produced by Chief Xcel. Part of the appeal is that Xcel knows Gift of Gab, and the tracks he creates are just subtle enough to allow Gab to shine. At the same time, though, he employs some crazy samples and they have just enough to keep listeners interested.
Unfortunately, none of the Xcel tracks are dominating, all of them focus on Gift of Gab, who can be occasionally boring. On the tracks “Blazing Arrow” and “Paragraph President”, the beats show why Xcel deserves his status as underrated, and still focus on the amazing rhyming of Gift of Gab. Songs like “Purest Love”, with its awesome flute sample, are few and far between, however, as they allow Gift of Gab to lay back a bit and let the listener enjoy the amazing beat. Gab even gets very autobiographical on the track, providing a little bit of insight into his life that is uncommon to his earlier work. Those who enjoy “Purest Love” will be begging for more tracks along the same line, but Blazing Arrow doesn’t have anything that similar to it. Hopefully, Blackalicious’ next outing will have more of these tracks, but Blazing Arrow is strong even without it.
Speaking of Gift of Gab, he really drives the whole album, as every track on the album features the same amazing tongue-twisting lyrics. While Gift of Gab’s delivery isn’t exactly as rapid-fire fast as an artist such as Twista, they are infinitely more poignant and important to society. Occasionally, Blackalicious has a track that will feature just Gift of Gab’s rhyming with very little emphasis on the production and more just on his flow and lyrics. On Blazing Arrow, this is featured on “Chemical Calthestentics”, a continuation of the A2G EP’s “Alphabet Aerobics”. The beat, created by Jurassic 5’s producer Cut Chemist, is very bland and pretty much just happens, for a lack of a better term. Nothing stands out in the beat, as the drum pattern is actually off-beat of Gift of Gab’s rhymes. As Gab is usually on beat to a possible fault, it is probable that the beat was switched up during the mixing, or that the vocals were laid acapella. However, it almost doesn’t matter, because Gab has the uncanny ability to make the listener get lost in lyrics like “Neutron, proton, mass effect, lyrical oxidation, yo irrelevant / Mass spectrograph, your electron volt, atomic energy erupting / As I get all open on betacron, gamma rays thermo cracking / Cyclotron and any and every mic / You're on trans iridium, if you're always uranium / Molecules, spontaneous combustion, pow / Law of de-fi-nite pro-por-tion, gain-ing weight / I'm every element of brown / Lead, gold, tin, iron, platinum, zinc, when I rap you think / Iodine nitrate activate / Red geranium, the only difference is I transmit sound”. Even though the written rhymes are incredible, they cannot truly match how Gift of Gab flips the lyrics.
The guests on Blazing Arrow all bring something unique to the table. Lateef of Latyrx and Charli 2na from Jurassic 5 pop up on “4000 Miles” and both display a previously hidden talent for lyrical acrobatics. Iriscience from Dilated Peoples appears on “Passion”, and the two MCs flow very well, kicking the usual science and are boosted by some awesome scratching by DJ Babu. The best guests on the CD, however, are Ben Harper on “Brain Washers” and Jaguar Wright on “Aural Pleasures”. Harper sounds a lot like pre-sex symbol D’Angelo as the deep bassline shows Blackalicious’ versatility, creating a deep song that is not just good hip-hop, but just good music. Wright displays talent for singing straight from her soul, and creates another deep, conscious track.
Blackalcious will probably never make a truly classic album. They will also probably never make a bad album. They simply have too much going for them with Chief Xcel’s ability to create a beat naturally or using a relatively obscure sample to match Gift of Gab’s ability to flip words like they never have been heard before. The problem is, they are just too used to each other. Many of the songs on Blazing Arrow are somewhat innovative, but, unfortunately, the innovation is exactly what Blackalicious fans expect. Both Nia and Blazing Arrow provide a good look into what makes them tick. Gift of Gab will take a subject that hasn’t been rhymed about much before in hip-hop and then rhyme about it, like on “Chemical Calthestentics” where he raps about the elements and chemistry in general. These tracks are welcome, but, Blackalicious needs to break out of their mold.
Chief Xcel needs to be more daring and not be afraid to dominate a track, which it seems like he is. Conversely, Gift of Gab needs to learn to lay back and just let a great beat dominate the track. On “4000 Miles”, Gift of Gab actually gets outshone by Charli 2na and Lateef, something that seemed impossible. It isn’t that his lyrics are poor, it’s just that both MCs let the beat take over and spit low key rhymes that aren’t in your face, and are multi-faceted. Both artists let the haunting piano and hard snares dominate, and the replay value is brought on because the one-liners and lyrics aren’t as obvious as Gift of Gab’s are. Even though they have made two very strong albums with great lyricism and good production, Blackalicious shows that they both need to grow as artists before they release a classic. If Gift of Gab and Chief Xcel sit down and discuss their future, and both continue the maturation they made from Nia to Blazing Arrow, the final part of the trilogy will be the best, a true classic.
Reviewed by: Brett Berliner
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01