Blackalicious’ latest release leaves me scratching my head. They have taken cues from Outkast, Common, the Roots and others by pushing the envelope sonically and lyrically, and for this, I applaud them. When Blackalicious’ experiment works, the music is playful, urgent, and daring. When the experiment fails, the music just sounds contrived, as if it’s trying too hard to be creative. While The Craft doesn’t sound as playful as Nia or as polished as Blazing Arrow, it’s a force of its own, pushing creative boundaries to mixed results.
At the onset, Gift of Gab and Xcel haven’t lost a step. Gab sounds especially urgent on the first track, “World of Vibrations,” where he boasts, “Emcees are puppets. Me, I’m Jim Henson.” The plinking keys and strings contribute to the crescendo, making listeners feels as if they’re running a marathon. The next track, “Supreme People” is oddly reminiscent of “Public Service Announcement,” off Jay-Z’s The Black Album. On “Supreme People,” Gift of Gab continues his denouncement of materialism. The track blares with a swagger not seen since their classic debut, Nia. “Rhythm Sticks,” “Your Move,” and “My Pen and Pad,” are also gems that allow Gift of Gab to display the kind of breath control that would make Twista or Busta Rhymes proud. The King of Funk himself, George Clinton, even graces the “Lotus Flower.”
So far so good, right? Then what’s the problem? Well, for all of Blackalicious’ ambitiousness, some songs on the album just don’t work. “Powers,” a song replete with guitars, soaring vocals, and keyboards, sounds oddly similar to “Hey Ya.” While I appreciate the creativity, the song sounds forced. Gift of Gab sings here, but shows none of the charisma and wit that Andre 3000 does. “Automatique,” the jazzy cut featuring Floetry, (actually, this song has grown on me) is decent, but sounds too soft when compared with the songs that come before it.
The album picks up again with “The Fall and Rise of Elliot Brown.” Conceptually, the track is brilliant, as it depicts the story of man who rebounds from a life in the streets. As the album gains momentum with “Black Diamonds and Pearls” and the feverish “Ego Sonic Drums,” (by far the album’s best cut), one can’t help but feel something is missing. Is it the choice of samples? Is it the lyrics (despite Gab’s fondness for introspective rhymes, he tends to get too abstract at times)? I don’t know. I can’t put my finger on it. The album does end on a high note, with the self-titled song, “The Craft,” where Gift of Gab expresses his love for The Craft of emceeing.
Even though the album grows on me, it doesn’t carry the same weight as Blackalicious’ previous full-length releases. However, while this album might be Blackalicious’ weakest, it is still better than 90 per cent of the songs dominating the airwaves. If anything, The Craft shows Blackalicious’ evolution as a group. In a world where emcees would rather flash their gold fronts than rhyme about ego sonic drums, The Craft provides a much needed breath of fresh air.