Blazing Arrow (MCA)

In more than a decade together, Blackalicious' Gift of Gab and Chief Xcel have released only two EPs (1995's Melodica and 1999's A2G) and one full-length (2000's Nia). That's not to suggest a lack of productivity, but rather an obsessive attention to detail -- Blackalicious is definitely of the "quality over quantity" school, aiming for nothing less than classic status with each disc. With both artists favoring density and complexity -- Gab being known for his high syllable-per-second rates and Xcel for his multilayered beats -- the duo falters only when jamming too many words and notes into songs. For the new LP Blazing Arrow, Xcel makes no bones about the pair's grand intentions, likening the record to a "graduate seminar" in a recent URBmagazine interview. As such, holding the effort up to anything other than the handful of truly timeless rap albums would be giving it short shrift.

Surely aware that only a tiny minority of the classic hip hop records were released on independent budgets, Blackalicious secured a partnership with MCA, and the infusion of cash is evident in every sound on Blazing Arrow. Xcel paints from one of the most lifelike sonic palettes in hip hop, loading up his sampler with everything from impossibly crisp kick-drum thumps to viscous splashing sounds. On a superficial listen, one might even mistake his backdrops for the work of a really precise funk band. By sampling the parts of guest singers and players such as Gil Scott-Heron, Ben Harper, Babu of Dilated Peoples, and drummer ?uestlove of the Roots, Xcel elevates the role of beatsmith from cut-and-paste collage artist to conductor, arguably placing himself on a par with all-time producers like the Bomb Squad and Dr. Dre.

On the other side of the studio glass, Gab upholds his reputation as one of the most technically proficient lyricists alive, trying on rhyming styles like so many thrift-store sweat shirts. But if Blazing Arrow falls short of its proposed target, it's because Gab's raps fail to convey anything more than his impressive abilities. His lyrics don't provide much in the way of what a marketer would call a "take home message," with the subject matter basically falling into two categories: battle rhymes and motivational messages. The latter, which can be summed up by lines like "The greatest experience is love, happiness, and laughter," begin to sound like platitudes after a time. While such fare can carry a solid hip hop album these days -- verbal acumen and positive encouragement being almost as rare as compelling content -- it's not enough to elicit the multitude of rewinds that an authentic classic should.

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