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One for the Griot

Hip-hop’s independents day comes early this year. With new albums by Blackalicious and J-Live, the indie underground is showing signs of life after a near decade spent more DOA than DIY. Ironically, indies have faltered in a manner opposite to that of their commercial peers. Today‘s hip-pop may be all about sweltering excess -- overproduced tracks and decadent fantasies -- but the underground has largely become a wasteland of barren concepts (”Real hip-hop!“) and arid imaginations (”Real hip-hop! Really!“). Both camps are self-indulgent in their own way, and both helped fashion an unremarkable catalog of albums in the last few years despite a bounty of great singles.

J-Live’s All of the Above isn‘t picture-perfect, but it’s a 10-league stomp in the right direction. This NYC MC has struggled through his career, dropped by label after label, but All of the Above is a triumphant redemption. Unlike the clutter of his 1999 debut, The Best Part, the new disc is diverse without being disparate, a panoply of styles that finds J switching roles as storyteller (”One for the Griot“), conscious Casanova (”Like This Anna“), autobiographer (”A Charmed Life“) and braggadocio supreme (”MCee“).

There‘s more: J-Live fashions rhymes as articulate as they are intelligent, as clever as they are complex. He resembles the guy voted ”most likely to succeed“ in your high school -- crazy, smart and charismatic; like Mos Def, Aceyalone or even Ghostface Killah, J understands that the best MCs don’t force a false choice between style and substance, but offer both. For example, in ”Satisfied?“ he adroitly weaves the contradictions around social justice post--September 11: ”The shit is real tragicbut it damn sure ain‘t magicit won’t make the brutality disappearit won‘t pull equality from behind your ear.“

As for the music -- provided by the likes of J-Live himself, Joe Money, DJ Spinna and DJ Jazzy Jeff’s Touch of Jazz -- that‘s a weaker point on the album, as the simplicity of some of the beats fails to complement J’s depth. But it‘s not a major flaw, and even the album’s length (21 tracks) doesn‘t seem as wearying as you might expect. It’s a testament to J‘s charms that even after you’ve spent an hour-plus with him, you‘re left wanting just a little more.

If All of the Above captures J-Live at the beginning of an auspicious rise, Blackalicious’ Blazing Arrow is a zenith for this stalwart group. The Bay Area‘s Gift of Gab and Chief Xcel have not only survived the jump from the indies to the majors, they’re apparently thriving. It‘s fitting, since Blackalicious helped lead the indie vanguard back in the ’90s with releases like Melodica (1997), A2G (1999) and Nia (2000), carving the path that J-Live and others now tread upon.

There were legitimate fears that their move to MCA might stifle the group‘s forward-thinking momentum, but Blazing Arrow triumphs as a project with indie roots and major-label resources. Like recent albums by new labelmates Common (Like Water for Chocolate) and the Roots (Things Fall Apart), Blazing Arrow is the most mature work Blackalicious have ever made -- confident, coherent, cohesive. There are certainly songs here that people are used to hearing from Gab and Xcel -- blistering rhyme rampages like ”Chemical Calisthenics“ or ”Paragraph President“ -- but Blackalicious also pull you in with more introspective expositions, soulful affairs like ”Day One“ and the epic, nine-minute ”Release“ featuring Saul Williams and Lyrics Born. It’s not a given that people will be open to hearing Gab and songstress Jaguar Wright together (”Aural Pleasure“), but the song works beautifully and should be a welcome surprise to even the most dour cynic.

Also unexpected is how hopeful, even happy, the album is without coming off superficial. ”Aural Pleasure,“ ”Green Light: Now Begin“ and ”4000 Miles“ are perfect summery picnic anthems. But the real center of the album is found in ”Make You Feel That Way,“ a deceptively up-tempo track that finds Gab musing on the gifts of everyday life: ”Christmas Daywhen your mama got you your first biketype of feelingwhen you won your first fighthow your team feltwinning championship gamescelebrate in the huddledancing in this rain.“ This would be nothing unusual for a bubble-gum pop album, but underground hip-hop can be so somber that songs that actually celebrate anything now seem revolutionary.

Like All of the Above, Blazing Arrow takes a misstep in being too cameo-laden (nearly half of the songs feature guest performers), and some of the R&Brap crossover tracks feel formulaic, especially the schlocky ”Purest Love.“ But the album is such a fully realized vision that even the weak links can‘t break the chain. This is what the independents -- current or former -- were supposed to have been making all this time. It’s never too tardy to get the party started.