Wanna Be So Dated?: Modern rap trends seep into Blackalicious’ latest hip-hop epic
Blackalicious’s new album opens with a manifesto, “World of Vibrations.” And while some of the song’s lines get lost in Gift of Gab’s caffeinated ?ow, he’s clearly attuned to the challenges facing Blackalicious in the aughties rap milieu. Check defiant (plaintive?) turns like, “And stay metaphysical / And challenge what is really real / And keep creating with the force to bring rap back / Not that it’s away but everybody got something to say / So let me speak the opposite of what’s hot now.” Should we read this as a courageous stand against the spinning moral compass of modern rap? Or as a rapper lashing out in fear against a zeitgeist that threatens to render him obsolete?
Blackalicious is definitely a throwback to rap styles of yore, falling somewhere between A Tribe Called Quest’s suburbia-approved beatnik-hop (both in its lyrical bent toward social conscience and its sculpted, content-laden beats) and the prolix word-trickery of ’90s indie rap. It wasn’t so long ago that such stuff could nestle comfortably on commercial radio alongside spiritual brethren like The Roots.
But here in 2005, the year of chopped-and-screwed crunk; brittle, alien grime; starkly repetitive club rap; and the “I ain’t a rapper, I’m a hustler who raps” denaturing of MC-as-artist, metaphysics don’t get much play, and it’s hard to imagine Chief Xcel’s lush palimpsests of funk, soul and jazz breaks spanning the gap between the minimal lockstep of The Game and Slim Thug. The implicit danger in speaking “the opposite of what’s hot now” is that no one will listen, but on The Craft, Blackalicious sidesteps this pitfall by maintaining the essence of its increasingly dated style while making small yet vital concessions to modernity.
Nowhere is this more explicit than on “Supreme People.” Over an uncharacteristically hard beat, Gab tips his hand with a verbal shrug toward the schism between his utopian dreams and modern rap’s nihilism: “I used to try and preach to young’uns like ‘Do right, kids’ / Nowadays, all that I can say is ‘Get it how you live.’” The Craft also tentatively reaches for club-banger status by arraying its symphonic beatscapes in crisp, clipped superstructures—“World of Vibrations” is damn close to a straight bounce track, and “Side to Side” is a radio-ready club-mackin’ narrative, complete with a pre-chorus imperative that sounds more like Missy than Blackalicious: “Just shut up / Ride the groove and let’s move.”
The slickster funk anthem “Lotus Flower” features a lascivious George Clinton cameo, but also includes some “ay-yi-yi-yi’s” that evoke JT Money’s modern club classic “Who Dat.” The “get ’em’s” on the chorus of the skittering “Rhythm Sticks” are a timely parallel of the ones in Hustle & Flow’s “Whoop That Trick,” although Gab appropriately substitutes the more esoteric mantra “rhythm sticks, rhythm sticks” for Terrance Howard’s violent mandate. With this typically solid effort, Blackalicious seems torn between “saving” the game and playing it, and if the trend continues on future efforts, it seems as if assimilation will trump revolution yet again.