There’s a moment about 20 minutes into Blackalicious’s fourth LP, Imani Vol. 1, where the beats fade, the rhymes fall out, and a swelling murmur of spoken voices takes over the mix. The speakers are kids and adults, giving soundbites about inspiration (”I am inspired by my sisters and my best friends,” “my children inspire me,” etc.) over a grainy piano loop.
There has long been a vaguely New Age-y undercurrent to Blackalicious’ rhymes (see: “Day One,” “Sleep”), but Imani Vol. 1—the duo’s first outing in a full decade—takes on a remarkably mellow hue. Wondering what Gift of Gab has to say about family? There’s the conversational, gospel-tinged “Love’s Gonna Say the Day,” where he spits lines like “Got a niece about to graduate from college / Hope she’s having a great journey / Learning lessons, how to build her future” with talk-show host ease. For armchair philosophizing about the tyranny of time, “The Hourglass” bears ample reflection (“You’ll never relive yesterday / You can’t rewind this tape…Did you utilize today and give all that you got?”).
Time was, writing such earnestly positive rhymes seemed revolutionary unto itself. Blackalicious, which pairs the tongue-twisting emcee Gift of Gab with DJ sidekick Chief Xcel, came up in the West Coast underground of the 1990s and early 2000s, when gangsta rap still set the default or commercially viable rap. The act crystallized around 2002’s Blazing Arrow, an unheralded masterpiece of affirming rhymes and soul-psychedelic production that warrants mention in the same breath as Phrenology or Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star. Then came 2005’s The Craft, and somewhere around the time Kanye set gangsta rap to rest, Blackalicious simply stopped making records.
So what’s new? In 2015, with Kendrick Lamar and Chance the Rapper topping both critical and commercial charts, Blackalicious’ brand of introspective rap no longer strays as far from the mainstream as it once did. But the group has energy still after 10 years. On Imani—a Swahili word for “Faith”—Gab is older, wiser and still a mesmerizingly skilled wordsmith. He’s at his best on propulsive, uptempo cuts like “Blacka” and “I Like the Way You Talk” (the latter incorporating babytalk into a breathtakingly delivered verse that threatens to one-up “Chemical Calisthenics”), while Lateef the Truthspeaker and Lyrics Born emerge for a dizzying shot of old-style braggadocio on “Alpha And Omega.” Productionwise, Xcel tones down the funk-inflected live instrumentation for a more minimalist set of piano/horn samples, with hooks sung by outside contributors. The African-Belgium vocal group appears for an impressively urgent reprise on the Imani refrain (“Imani”).
Imani is less appealing when it treads too close to feel-good platitudes (“Inspired By,” “Twist of Time”), though Gab’s conversational flow still packs enough sincerity to get away with lines like “Family will have your back when everybody else will skip.” Blackalicious was always the thing you played for your rockist dad toting decades-stale rap-bashing clichés. With Imani, you’ve got 58 more minutes’ worth of arsenal.