It's been five years since Oakland rapper Gift of Gab made his solo debut with 4th Dimensional Rocketships Going Up, but the wait for a follow-up has made the time feel much longer. Not that the man born Timothy Parker has been slouching. He has continued thriving as half of Blackalicious, his acclaimed duo with DJ Chief XCel. In 2005, they released and toured a third album, The Craft. In 2007, Quannum Projects mainstay Lateef the Truth Speaker recruited Gab for the Mighty Underdogs, a collaborative project with producer Headnodic of Oakland's Crown City Rockers. Gab was suddenly in the thick of a tour for the Underdogs' Droppin' Science Fiction after that album came out last year. The intervening project pushed back both his solo work and the next Blackalicious record, which was slated to follow his second solo platter.
It's rewarding, then, to finally hear Gift of Gab on his own — and in fine form — on the newly released Escape 2 Mars. His weighty vocal presence once again presents a mesmerizing, impossibly fluid flow. Like his solo debut, there seems to be a galactic theme at work here.
Neither album is simply about outer space, though. "4th Dimensional Rocket-ships was more about living in the dimension of the spirit [outside of the body]," Gab says. "Escape 2 Mars is more about Earth." The latter's title track, it turns out, was inspired by a benefit show Blackalicious did to raise awareness of global warming. Despite its catchy bounce, the song runs through a dark list of catastrophic outcomes. "Electric Waterfalls," meanwhile, tackles another hot-button issue: the exploitative excesses of the medical industry.
"Those concepts were just in my head," Gab explains. "Those two songs set the tone for the record. I didn't go too deep into that stuff on other songs, 'cause I didn't want a whole record about conspiracy theories and global warming."
For Escape 2 Mars, Gab enlisted beats from Headnodic and San Francisco producer DNAEBEATS. Hip-hop heavyweights Brother Ali and Del the Funkyhomosapien guest on the tour de force "Dreamin'," and there are cameos from locals Lateef, Joyo Velarde, and Honeycut frontman Bart Davenport. Such guests were especially useful when it came to singing the hooks Gab had in his head. "Obviously, I'm not a singer," he readily admits. "I have this one range I can hit, but I wouldn't sing on every song. In fact, that's the one thing I could change about 4th Dimensional; I sang on too many hooks where I should have got singers to come in."
Gift of Gab's upcoming performance is the first of his 12-date Deadliest Catch Tour with Chali 2na (ex-Jurassic 5), Mr. Lif, and host Lyrics Born. Despite his obvious place with those three in a hip-hop pantheon, Gab acknowledges that his skills as an MC are never quite perfect.
"You're always perfecting it as you go," he says. "I don't know if perfect is possible." He adds, "I try to stay free with it. I don't ever want people to put their finger on what I'm gonna do."
Gab says his next project is a fourth Blackalicious album, but generally he'll work to keep fans anticipating each new chapter in his long, distinguished career. And if his past work is any guide, future chapters will continue to yield creative innovations and revelations in hip-hop.