Blackalicious doesn't pay lip service to the false gods of commerce, name-drop hot clothing labels, seek celebrity endorsements, or pray fervently for a solid-gold single to drop from the sky and deliver them from obscurity. The Bay Area duo, composed of lyricist Gift of Gab and producer Chief Xcel, have chosen to be agents of their own destiny, and with Nia, their third release following the 1995 EP Melodica and last year's A2G, they're quite possibly poised to help revive the creatively moribund state of hip-hop. Unimposing but inquisitive, Blackalicious's message of positivity closely resembles that of fellow left-field artists Mos Def, Pharoahe Monch, and Latyrx. Like those stylistic peers, they integrate many of the sonic flourishes that mark the work of their pop contemporaries, but cleverly transform those same pop conventions to serve their own more adventurous purposes.
Blackalicious frames Nia with a series of interludes; the songs themselves are a beautiful pastiche of classic breaks, constructed of familiar, if tantalizingly unplaceable melodies. The result is one of spiritual uplift; theirs is the kind of music that becomes truly evocative, that achieves the desired effect even if you can't quite negotiate hip-hop's lexicon of slang or keep up with every rapid-fire verse. Gift of Gab knows the difference between dexterity and braggadocio, complementing rather than exceeding his musical accompaniment.
Nia's rhythms are hardly abstract. Each song inspires delirious head nodding, yet each individual element (most of which, though machine made, are original and sample free) never sounds confined within the overall melody. This impermanence gives the music a vitality and a freshness that cannot be achieved by the cut-and-paste simplicities that dominate rap sales charts. Chief Xcel displays the same kind of versatility in his production that veteran Pete Rock does, with noteworthy but never monotonous similarities between tracks, also mimicking Rock's tendency to introduce beats and then steal them away just as you're getting comfortable. The interludes are a perfect combination of underspoken songwriting and rhyme-free verse, which marks one of the few instances in recorded memory that the spoken word hasn't proven immediately excruciating.
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Unfortunately hip-hop's current marketplace mood is to dismiss anything that smacks of being too intelligent, too challenging, and ultimately, too tough a sell. Nia is a rewarding attempt to buck that trend.