The Craft

Artist: BlackaliciousTitle: The CraftRating: 3 1/2 StarsReviewed by: Kevin Polowy

With 2002’s exceptional Blazing Arrow, Blackalicious graduated from reliable left-coast ambassadors to melodic Hip-Hop royalty. Naturally, expectations the weight of an offensive line await their follow-up. And while it doesn’t quite stack up, The Craft (Anti/Epitaph) won’t leave anyone crying they’ve been Fauriza Balk’d.

Like all great artists, Chief Xcel and The Gift of Gab clearly aspire to make music outside of the boombox, to evolve their styles on some Darwinian sh*t. The Craft ain’t a science project, but it includes their most experimental work to date. And in expanding their sonic range, they sacrifice the constancy of vibes and stuff that enveloped Blazing Arrow.

The most obvious departure from that mode comes with the eventual single “Powers,” which has already drawn discerning comparisons to that little Andre 3000 ditty “Hey Ya,” mostly because Gab comes with the croon. And while he does prove his pipes steely over dainty X-cel drumwork, the campy hook is unlikely to wet panties the way Andre can with such ease, but we’ll see. We all knew this was coming, but Gab kills it on the drum ‘n’ bass tip with “The Fall and Rise of Elliot Brown” – that is until the track unexpectedly transforms into more serene meditations.

Once again the supremely underrated Lateef turns up on the crown jewel “Side to Side,” murdering the track alongside Gab and Quannum’s most impressive new signee, Pigeon John. Each of the trio shines in rhymes about dancefloor misadventures over a theatrical but simple, bouncy piano-piloted production, resulting in one for the anthology.

Those who share this writer’s awe for Gab’s Herculean lyrical prowess won’t find much to gripe about. Though he’s told us he plans to follow up “Alphabet Aerobics” and “Chemical Calisthenics” with an algebra anthem, he doesn’t get into full work-out mode on The Craft, though he does get his alliteration on within “Rhythm Sticks,” spelling out the group that he reps with brisk rhymery. The “Paragraph President” here is “My Pen and Pad,” and though it’s too fleeting, Gab’s non-dependence on oxygen is on full display. Though he can play the other-emcees-aren’t-sh*t game (“Emcees are puppets/ Me, I’m Jim Henson”), his writs more often than not aim to transcend the physical, often taking aim at capitalism, the California prison system, and hypocrites en masse (those who “Talk all about peace and love and God/ But then why are we at war/ Killin’ people in Iraq”).

The boldness you’ve come to expect from Gab and X-Cel (whose beat wattage tends most to that “Passion” style) is unrelenting, even if the hit-miss quota has slightly waned. But even a mere solid Blackalicious outing clowns 75% of a respectable playlist.