#91: Blackalicious, Blazing Arrow (2002)
I have been struggling to review this album for what feels like years now; let that read primarily as a warning and also as an assertion of this album’s categorical slipperiness. There is no unifying aesthetic gambit, no historical import that serves to tie this album’s sprawl into a neat--and, more importantly, easily analyzed--package. It is by turns a “conscious” hip-hop album, an experimental one, and a pop one, fronted by a celestially talented MC and his shapeshifting producer. It is an album that balances the contending trajectories of two forces: the brain-melting wordplay of Blackalicious’s fellow underground hip-hoppers and the laidback vibes of their native California.
It is, more than anything, a set of seventeen experiments that usually work and sometimes don’t, which is the most convincing narrative I have been able to attach to this album. Though many have turned their back on it thanks to a recently invigorated stigma around “intelligent rap,” Blazing Arrow
’s onslaught of ideas and motifs seems enduring--the album plays almost like The Beatles
(1968), different sets of songs growing on and off you each listen, the whole thing feeling weirdly majestic as it reaches its end. Of course, this also means that Blazing Arrow
could have easily been excised of its fat, and indeed: “Passion” is a withering call to arms (“Passion: the will to win, the spark within / Passion: the strength within the hearts of men”) and the snoozy “4000 Miles” is entirely barren of any aesthetic or philosophical notion not expressed with more eloquence elsewhere on the album.
But the fun thing about looking at albums in a purely retrospective sense is that these things tend not to matter very much; Blazing Arrow
feels as good as its best songs, and those songs are often eye-openingly good. “Make You Feel That Way” is the album’s one unapologetic grab at sentimentality, and MC Gift of Gab sells it with finesse. Tracing a day full of things that “make you feel that way”--waking up hopeful, seeing an old friend, getting a promotion and acquiring the sense of purpose to which it is attached--Gab is able to transcend the specific fluctuations of his life cycle and produce something genuinely universal, all while blithely shouting out KRS-One and Rakim. On the three-part “Release,” he even manages to best a dreamy Saul Williams and a chest-puffing Lyrics Born by employing that most dangerous of beasts: the breathlessly fast verse, one that keeps adding syllables and sounds and meanings until the effect is almost vertiginous. “Green Light: Now Begin,” meanwhile, is almost the complete opposite but no less charming or groovy for it, Gab leisurely snaking his way around a funky beat that seems to ascend, Escherlike, without ever stopping.
My favorite, however, might just be “Day One,” the delectably drippy closer that sets everything into place (continuing the White Album analogy, this is Blazing Arrow
’s “Good Night”). After sixteen tracks of the relentlessly catchy and complex rhymes I’ll rightly be castigated for not referencing enough, Gift of Gab settles down to the “home out of wrong where it feels right,” a line that might feel cheesy were it not so disarmingly heartfelt. Chief Xcel reconciles his loves of retro and futurism long enough to lay down a gorgeous track upon which Gab convincingly replicates that exact feeling, one of settling down in a place where you can truly feel “your inner soul’s vibration.” Indeed, that might act as the album’s mission statement; “smart” though it may be, this is music that is all about physicality, about no longer feeling the need to detach your mind from your body in the chemical calisthenics of our life’s continuum. Simply put, this is an album intent on moving your heart, body, and mind at the same time. If that kind of holy water comes with a little backwash, so be it. I defer to “Make You Feel That Way”: “In the dark, it's more likely that you notice light / In the light, more likely that you notice night.” Amen.