"The Craft"


Underground rap duo Blackalicious, coming from Northern California's bay area indie scene, has long been one of those groups that has gotten more respect than success, if you define success as record sales, magazine covers and shoe deals. Of course, if you take a more artistic view -- jamming beats, lyrics that are intelligent and flow like melted butter -- then Blackalicious is living large.

Unfortunately for beat-builder Chief Xcel and vocalist Gift of Gab, their fifth full-length studio album is once again likely to increase the respect due from their peers without doing much for their bank accounts.

Xcel brought live musicians into the studio and had them jam. He then took the best portions and built songs around them. The result is a CD that blends live instrumentalists and samples seamlessly, with a warm, organic feel. It's eclectic, ignoring boundaries the same way the Roots do, blending hip-hop, soul, funk and '60s rock. "Powers" could have come from Prince's vault. "Your Move" has a solid old-school rap feel. "Lotus Flower" is a dark and tasty groove with George Clinton doing a guest appearance. "Automatique" (with Floetry), "Rhythm Sticks" and "Give It to You" (which calls Eric B and Rakim to mind) sink hooks deep inside your head.

Some longtime fans may get indignant and claim that "The Craft" is too polished, too pop. It is slicker in ways, and Gift of Gab indulges in his signature speed-rapping much less than usual. But it is no marketing ploy. It's a talented duo evolving, exploring stylistic parameters, making compelling music and demonstrating a mastery of their "Craft." You can't get much more successful than that.

-- Curt Fields

Appearing Sunday with G. Love & Special Sauce at the 9:30 club.

The latest release from Blackalicious blends hip-hop, soul, funk and '60s rock.