It seems appropriate that an album whose title translates to Purpose took five years to gestate. Blackalicious Nia comes half a decade after the Oakland duos Melodica EP, half a lifetime, it feels, after the groups QuannumSolesides family (DJ Shadow, Latyrx) first manned the vanguard of Californias indie hip-hop revolution. Nineteen tracks long, Nia is the groups debut full-length album, an ambitious project that strives to honor its Swahili namesake through a mesh of moralistic fables, elaborate narratives and straight bash-n-bruise braggadocio.
At times, the albums myriad directions feel Hydra-like, but Nia is anchored by dazzling moments of musical and mental inspiration. From the Afro-beat riddims on Smithzonian Institute of Rhyme, to the jangling piano melody of A to G, to the nasty, throbbing bass loop on Ego Trip, Chief Xcel finally shows off his patchwork of beats after tempting us with mere swatches. Likewise, Gift of Gab invokes his own nom de plume on songs like Trouble and The Fabulous Ones, spraying a stream of rhymes that race the rhythm in speed and density. Showing off his versatility, Gab also goes deep into the polemics of positivity on Shallow Days and Making Progress, and gets in touch with his soulful self on As the World Turns.
Given how long it took for the album to come to fruition, Nias expansive ambitions are understandable, even expected, but they also strain the projects consistency. In a worst-case example, Gabs attempt to graff a rap noir vignette onto the six-minute marathon Cliff Hanger ends up being far less interesting than DJ Shadows techno-meets-horrorcore track of drum n bass blasts and dub drifts. Ironically, for all its iconoclastic intentions, Nias more conventional songs (A to G, Trouble) hold things together with their familiarity.
The true beauty of Blackalicious isnt in their attempts to fix a moral center (much as hip-hop needs it) or their spiritual cleansings on songs like Sleep; it lies in the remarkable chemistry between Gabs sinuous syllabics and Chief Xcels soul-engineered beats. On If I May, Xcel kicks off the track with shimmering cymbals and an acoustic-guitar loop, and in glides Gab, proclaiming, Here we go againslip into my consciencecome along and take ina story about a battlein this corner Satan . . . He seems hardly to pause to breathe as he continues to spill his words, and youll be left in similar anticipation until the song ends.
Blackalicious performs at Fais Do Do on Tuesday, February 22.
Disco & the Halfway to Discontent (Luaka BopAstralwerks)
Expertly hybridizing a handful of subcultural forms, Cornershop topped crit lists in 1997 with their last album, When I Was Born for the Seventh Time. The U.K. band -- really a duo of singersongwriter Tjinder Singh and utility man Benedict Ayres -- injected indie rock with beats and a dose of Punjabi folk. (What exactly the latter term means is a mystery, but it seems to function as a catchall for Singhs Indian-tinged contributions; happily it means more than just an occasional sitar track.) Considering that critical juice hardly pushed them to superstar status, its odd theyve chosen to go the pseudonymous route for their new one, Disco & the Halfway to Discontent, released under the provocative (or something) name Clinton.
They say its a politicized, beat-based side project -- a critique of disco, and a love letter, too. But their claim that Clinton combines disco and agitprop doesnt jibe with the sounds or the messages contained herein: Disco lived off ecstatic ebbs and bathetic swells, while this music is steady and repetitive. Beyond that, this is largely an instrumental record; agitprop lives off lyrics. When vocals do pop up, they sound more like shout-outs or effaced samples than manifestoes. Perhaps thats the critique -- Dionysian disco life leads to anonymized consumption -- but if so, it was presented better and with more bite in the early 80s by Clintons agitpunk countrymen Gang of Four. Even the pimps and freaks strolling down Sunset on Becks new one, Midnite Vultures, have more sinister implications than the funky brothers and sisters on Disco & the Halfway to Discontent.
Talk of politics aside, Clinton adhere to Jacksonian democratic principles. No, not to Andrew, but to a gang of five: Jermaine, Jackie, Marlon, Michael and Tito. The leadoff track? People Power in the Disco Hour. Sadly, in Clinton Singh often neglects his talent for the insistent song, relying only on the disembodied hook. Their sound is steeped in rare grooves, enhanced with hip-hop electronics and designed for lighthearted dancing. If the pair occasionally turn their rhythms on autopilot and rely on algorithm, you cant really hold it against em. In fact, Singhs appealingly mellifluous monotone is a nice complement to the often repetitive lockgroove. In a face-off of alter egos, this duos Cornershop project comes out on top, but Clinton leaves us more than half content. (Alec Hanley Bemis)