On “Way of the Light,” the third song on Blackalicious emcee Gift of Gab’s solo debut, is a rhythm-backing vocal line. It’s a beautiful melody, and the song has a relaxed, soulful vibe that few hip-hop songs can match. The problem with 4th Dimensional Rocketships Going Up is that the third track’s melody could be put behind nearly every song on the album. By the fifteenth track that aims for the same emotional response, the album has gone far beyond wearing out its welcome, and what should have been a joyful and beautiful record becomes a difficult listen.
Blackalicious’s 2000 debut, Nia, was conscious rap at its peak. Firmly West Coast in its embracing of the G-funk groove, the album used cinematic beats and airy production to introduce Quannum to the LP crowd. On all accounts it was a stunning debut, particularly in a year that saw that other great conscious hip-hop album, Reflection Eternal’s Train of Thought, continue in the Black Star tradition. Gift of Gab and Chief Xcel were at the top of their game, particularly on such songs as “Cliffhanger,” “Do This My Way” and “Shallow Days.” Unfortunately, their 2002 follow-up, Blazing Arrow, was a commercial misstep with all of the talent of its predecessor and none of its bite.
Even as Blazing Arrow was attempting to break through to a larger audience, Gift of Gab was hard at work on a solo album. But why? As this finished product shows, he wasn’t going in any different direction lyrically, and he didn’t want to experiment with any different forms of music. If anything, the album is Blackalicious-lite, which, considering the direction in which the group seems to be headed, isn’t anything new. Lyrics Born’s still underrated debut from last year, Later that Day …, was a brilliant departure from Latyrx, moving into funky territory that wasn’t possible with the more conventional emcee styling of Lateef. Why would Gift of Gab leave one of the best producer’s around to explore … generic underground hip-hop?
But despite all that, Gift of Gab is still a great emcee, and listening to individual songs from this album is still a pleasure. “The Ride of Your Life” opens the album, and its fluttering harps that permeate the track fit in perfectly with Gab’s professional flow. “The Writz” is a bit embarrassing as a club track, but if you listen to it in your own home its old-style piano riff is a nice detour from the rest of the album. The varied delivery and vocal dips on closer “Just Because” wake you up just in time for the end of the record, but it is too little too late.
Gift of Gab and Xcel will never drop off the list of important hip-hop artists (that’s how good Nia was, and still is), but it’s time for something new. We can only hope their next album together will prove they still have the urge to push things forward.