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Wednesday, April 17, 2002

HIGH NOTES

Blackalicious: 'Blazing Arrow'


'Who said underground is just one mode?" asks the Gift of Gab (Tim Parker) on Blackalicious' new album, "Blazing Arrow." That question became a rhetorical one when the Bay Area hip-hop duo's label, Quannum Projects, was picked up for distribution by MCA/ Universal. But even if they're underground only in their minds, Blackalicious remain impressively independent of mainstream rap's urge to keep everything in the family. "Music is a journey," goes the refrain on "4000 Miles," a journey that makes all communities one community and all time the present. The specific is the universal.

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In the hands of GOG and DJ/trackmaster Chief Xcel (Xavier Mosley), it's also a pretty fast journey. The album title, repeated by a female chorus between tracks throughout the disc -- just like the word "Freedom" was on the group's groundbreaking 1999 album "Nia" -- would seem to refer to GOG's tongue, which generates dense, syntactically complex poetry faster than most human beings can process it. On the sample that anchors the title track, Harry Nilsson sings "me and my arrow" in a loping, lazy whimper that couldn't stand in starker contrast to GOG's motormouth ministrations. It's perhaps this attribute he's referring to in the title of "Nowhere Fast," where GOG considers the more general phenomenological relationship between rapper and listener: "I'm only what you make me hope I'm what you pray I am."

Xcel's grooves have become as sophisticated as GOG's verbal fusillades, moving further afield from the hippie-soul textures that characterized the more Afrocentric "Nia" (whose centerpiece was an ode to Cleopatra by Nikki Giovanni). On "Paragraph President," as GOG explores the semantic connections between poetry and politics, Xcel creates a mind-boggling collage of spoken-word illustrations and space funk. On "Greenlight," he counterpoints the anxiety of an uncertain future that's implied by GOG's rap with echoes of comfortable, familiar sounds.

Blackalicious essentially comments on the staleness of current overground hip-hop by not commenting on it at all. In other words, there's no boasting, no throw-down challenges, no requisite demonstrations of hard-'n'-real. More inner-directed than the overtly radical Coup, Blackalicious nevertheless shares with their fellow East Bay crew a love of big music and big themes that is a direct expression of their big humanity. "I'm just a rapper, and I probably don't fit into the current state of what you consider that to be," explains GOG. "Purest love is how I'm driven."



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