As far as rap duos go, only Outkast can truly lay claim to four critically acclaimed albums released on the trot. Blackalicious (MC Gift of Gab and producer Chief Xcel) have three gems in “Nia”, “Blazing Arrow” and “The Craft”, but “Imani Vol 1” is just short of those classics. One could argue the case for Gift of Gab’s “4th Dimensional Rocketships Going Up!” (which was fantastic) but it’s most definitely a separate project. Billed as the first of three instalments over a period of two years, “Imani Vol. 1” is a thumping, lyrical extravaganza that is certainly a reminder of Blackalicious’ talents, but isn’t as consistent as previous efforts.
Chief Xcel was experimenting on “The Craft” which meant some songs (I’m looking at you “Rhythm Sticks”) sound a little corny ten years on, but “Imani Vol. 1” thankfully keeps the cheesiness to a minimum. “Ashes to Ashes” is on some Jurassic 5 steez, during their “Feedback” album in 2006 when their sound was corny. It’s the strange decisions that hold the record back from the upper echelons of their previous work – “I Like The Way You Talk” is what my parents would imagine all rap music sounded like when I had my CDs playing too loudly in my teens. It’s noise and a bunch of chaotic rhymes.
Gift of Gab is going to be an acquired taste, especially in 2015 where flow is often overlooked by many listeners in favour of content and delivery. Gab is one of those emcees you appreciate more if you’ve ever written rhymes yourself, and is up there with Esoteric and Mos Def in the way he weaves his words around the instrumental, as if his voice is another instrument producing melodies. Amongst the lyrical acrobatics, Gift of Gab shows his storytelling ability on a selection of songs. “Escape” is a refreshing reminder that the youth of today aren’t truly trapped in their neighbourhood, as there’s a huge world out there. Of course, you can just be trapped in a different place but be part of the same socio-economic class (stuck in the system), but telling youngsters to get off their ass and create situations so as to change their destiny, is actually refreshing without sounding like Dad-rap. One of the best tracks on “Imani Vol. 1” is “That Night”, a conversational track documenting an evening out with a friend. Chief Xcel kills the instrumental – it’s classic Blackalicious with Gab being given a simple rhythm to work his playful flow:
Aging backpackers will rejoice at Lateef and Lyrics Born joining the guys on “Alpha and Omega”, but this is very much a Blackalicious album. Gift of Gab remains a fire-spitter but his flow has withered slightly since the immaculately delivered rhymes crafted in the early 2000s, but it’s not always noticeable. Musically, there’s some jarring moments that hold this back from being one of their best works (“Inspired By” goes off on a wild Roger Troutman-infused tangent, midway through the album), but a good Blackalicious album is still something to shout about. It will be easier to reflect on what the duo are trying to achieve once the other two instalments in the “Imani” series are released next year.