For Blackalicious frontman Gift of Gab, his artistry has always lived outside of hip-hop’s fashionable margins, his old-school cadence as nostalgic as the dusty drum breaks he prefers. Over the years, that aesthetic has worked well for the veteran MC: he’s worked with everyone from ?uestlove to Zack de la Rocha, from Ledisi to the iconic Gil Scott-Heron. Through it all, the Gift of Gab has always remained true to himself, no matter how esoteric his blend of preachy rhymes and distinctive baritone. He’s unapologetic, lyrically seasoned, and has no problems reminding you of such. And just like some of his peers, he has a big problem with the current state of hip-hop and its dearth of talent. Much of the genre is drowning in glossy pop glaze, and raw lyricism with a purpose is few and fair between. “It doesn’t take a bit of talent to do what they do, the game is fully tainted,” Gab rhymes on his new album, Next Logical Progression. “It would be hate if I critique, and talk about all the wackness that is blatant I can see.”
Gab’s got a point. Now more than ever, any bit of criticism is largely misconstrued as “hate,” now matter how intelligent the argument. Therefore, Gab wants MCs and the listening public to re-embrace complex wordplay with a message, much like the fluid expression for which he is known. That’s commendable, except Next Logical Progression feels staid and too steeped in the past, from the wistful sway of its piano loops to the stilted swing of its instrumentals. Get past the music, and Progression is littered with questionable decisions: the hook to “Protocol” feels almost comedic when harmonized (“Just call me a conscious fool, that rhymes circles around you/Please respect my protocol, one by one, I’ll kill you all.”) “No Place Like Home,” with its bubbly synths and Prince-inspired composition, emulates the same pop gloss that Gab chastises, even if the words atop the melody pay homage to your geographical center. On “Wack But Good People,” Gab further pontificates the hate/criticism argument, but it misses the mark with a misguided call-and-response flow between him and an aspiring rapper looking to make waves within the genre.
Overall, Next Logical Progression has good intentions, even if the final product is a bit too rigid to make a serious impact. As a child of the 1980s, I certainly agree with Gab’s philosophies: By and large, hip-hop has strayed too far from its origins, in which merit was earned through insightful subject matter and stimulating wordplay. Respect was earned through “hip-hop quotables” and those verses could still be heard on the radio. However, evolution is key to the vitality of any genre, and I’m certain those before us spouted the same “music ain’t the same” complaints as we do. But alas, Progression doesn’t make a convincing argument for rap’s return to the golden era. Instead, it feels a bit too grumpy and too reliant upon the good ol’ days. And that’s unfortunate.