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13 January 2010

Blackalicious - 'Nia' (Quannum)

A return from the holidays finds this sore thumb waiting in the Underbite, a throwback to that innocent summer of '00, a time that I always want to reminisce about cause it's before 9/11 and therefore everything had yet to "change". But the reality is that I was just another white avant-leaning indie kid in college who dabbled in hip-hop -- at least, if it was scribed as being particularly artistic. This double LP ranked near the top of that mountain, which probably explains why it's still here. It's almost ten years later and man, what a weird listen this is now. Primarily this is because I have no interest or connection in the hip-hop genre at all, and in fact feel so removed from black American 'urban' culture that the stylistic/genre affects strike me as nearly alien today. What I can't deny is how strangely good this music is. I don't ultimately understand (or care) about the elements that make a rapper good, such as flow or style or whatever. (I do have an unfortunate memory of being stuck listening to some shithead babble about how great Eminem's "flow" was, while waiting to get the cheque at some shithole diner at 3 AM -- an experience that probably did as much to drive me away from hip-hop as anything else). However, I can understand that Gift of Gab manages to convey something really visceral and Chief Xcel's rhythms are strangely infectious. I expected to put this on the 'sell' pile, or at least declare the double LP length to be far too long, but I have little to complain about. There's a few diversions from direct rap that stand out, such as "Ego Trip", which sets a Nikki Giovanni poem to some beats and manages to be an intense fireburn of black feminist energy. Also "Cliff Hanger" is, I think, about the film The Golden Child or if not, a nice surreal dream anyway. These dudes know how to weave a tapestry of soul/jazz/rap styles, without sounding needlessly retro: take 'As the World Turns' for a really nice example. I don't really care about "positive" lyrics but there's an intellectualism that's evident here, in addition to all sorts of obscurist samples like Finnish jazz guitarists and the Move. Lateef and Lyrics Born pop up, being the necessary guest stars to do the whole rap collective thing (and after all, Quannum Projects was a noble venture). Subtleties are there too - offbeats on the drum programming, mild vocal asides, and tiny tonal twangs in every corner. 'Smithzonian Institute of Rhyme' gets into a dark disco minimalist groove, with that hip-hop way of singing that became a lot more prevalent over the next decade. But this is a million miles from the overproduced gizmos that adorn commercial rap. Though Xcel pastes things together with great attention to detail, it avoids having any sort of shimmer; 'Beyonder' has a great retrofuturist 80s feel which is what I'm trying to describe. Now I'm tempted to seek out that first Latyrx album, which I remember as being even better than this. Maybe it's time for a personal hip-hop renaissance?

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