If there was one quality that defined Blackalicious's first full-length, 'NIA,' it was timelessness. The lush tracks, the vocal harmonies and the liberal doses of soul meshed with the Gift of Gab's blazing flow to create something special. Simply put, 'Blazing Arrow' does the same thing.
From the opening organ and montage of vocal samples which form "Bow and Arrow," punctuated by keys and scratches, the curious Blackalicious blend of nostalgic soul and contemporary hip-hop rears its sensuous head. The titular next track shows this juxtaposition at its peak: bubbling liquid and wistful samples mesh with Gab's rapid-fire flow. The quaint pipes at the end of "Blazing Arrow" solidify the song's position as a stunning example of the group's talents. Later on, Gab slows down his tempo for "Nowhere Fast," where the relaxed tone is expressed by the gentle vocals and indulgent blend of instruments in the background. Gab's lyrics focus on "tomorrow," but the beauty of the song keeps us in the moment.
The languorous feel throughout, more than a little reminiscent of 'NIA,' is mostly due to the exemplary production. Handled by Chief Xcel for the most part, with a few outside flourishes here and there, its a wonderful balance of the soothing and the energetic. "Make You Feel That Way" is surrounded by calming strings and soft bass lines, but the accompanying drums have just enough spark to keep the track jumping. "Brainwashers," which follows, feels like an inverse of the preceding track, as the whole force of the beat brings movement to the forefront, with only a slight guitar sample and the soft hook keeping the gentle feel active. This balance is what makes the album so good: its great whether you're falling asleep or just waking up.
If I've spent most of this review talking about the beats, its because Gab doesn't really stand out here like an MC of his caliber should. Not to say Gab is weak on here, an opinion which "Paragraph President," "Passion," or "Chemical Calisthenics" would immediately rebuke; but his emceeing tends to fall into the beats without establishing itself. The hooks, which are the strongest part of the album's vocals, soar above Xcel's compositions, adding to their emotive power; Gab's deep voice just sinks into the beats, not making much of an impression. His inadequacy here is underscored by the outstanding guest appearance of Saul Williams on "Release," whose almost nonchalant vocal technique manages to propel his words where Gab's can't reach. I could probably recite that entire verse from memory, but I'd be lucky to recall 2 bars of Gab's rhymes.
It's difficult to criticize a spellbinding album or an incredible emcee, but 'Blazing Arrow's deficiencies are a bit too apparent for me to ignore. The album sometimes seems a bit like a retread of 'NIA,' and it will probably be as much of a grower as that LP. Its an excellent major-label debut, and one of the best albums of the year so far.