“Do as I say, not as I do” often slips off the lips of self-conscious advisers in the midst of doling out advice, and on The Craft‘s “The Fall and Rise of Elliot Brown,” Blackalicious’s Gift of Gab allows himself the same sort of judgmental cushion. The track sums up a fight-through-adversity story with this line: “Remember, change is all that remains constant.” The Craft, the group’s third album, reminds us that Blackalicious’s career has not been marked by constant change, but that’s not a bad thing. With its positive vibe and relatively catchy soul-infused beats, Blackalicious has always commanded respect, and keeping that formula relatively intact within a genre that is saturated with materialism is commendable.
After recent explorations into other projects, Blackalicious’s Gift of Gab and producer/deejay Chief Xcel rejoined forces and created an album that is exactly what we would expect. The Craft features more of Gab’s distinctive flow, which at times creates more melody than its underlying beat. He again shows his chops and signature world play on “Rhythm Sticks,” where he starts each line with a letter from the word “Blackalicious” — “B is for the beats you knock while puffing on your L,” and so on — recalling the alphabetic parameters of “A to G” from the group’s 2000 debut, Nia. Xcel’s production doesn’t stray very far from its R&B and soul influences, but this time it comes without almost any samples, relying sometimes on players from a homebrewed funk band to create clearance-free beats instead. Unfortunately, this new recipe doesn’t always hit the mark, and songs such as “Black Diamonds and Pearls” sound more like smooth jazz than What’s Going On-era Marvin Gaye.
As Gab and Xcel step to their third album with a steady stream of underground popularity, they seem to be searching for something more mainstream with The Craft. “Powers” may seem trite, with its catchy bass line and lyrics about a woman whose female powers conquer every man, but every hip-hop album needs its jam, and this is The Craft‘s. Luckily, the album’s first half-dozen tracks hit like a brick, with their fusion of danceable beats and strong lyrical flows. The combination is such that it’s hard to think of the two as different elements, but analyzing each separately would unearth something rather forgettable in the overly layered production and empty lyrical flows.
Five years ago, Blackalicious made a bold move on Nia‘s “Deception.” The lyrical hook — “Don’t let money change you” — called out Sisqó for selling himself to the commercial world of Pepsi and MTV. With ideals this high on their freshman release, Gab and Xcel had no choice but to stick with their blend of noble storytelling and funk-inspired beats. Once you’ve called your path, you need to keep true to your direction. The Craft shows that although the last two years saw Gab releasing a solo album (and licensing his work for a soft-drink commercial) and Xcel working with Lateef the Truth Speaker on another project, the two know that what they do best is complement each other’s styles. Just like Eric Sermon and Parrish Smith, the sum totally outweighs its parts.