Having unleashed 2000’s breakthrough indie masterpiece NIA and 2002’s ambitious major-label debut Blazing Arrow, Blackalicious now finds itself at an artistic crossroads. No longer contractually bound to industry giant MCA, the duo of rapper Gift of Gab and producer and DJ Chief Xcel is now affiliated with Anti, the edgy, urban subsidiary of primarily punk powerhouse Epitaph, itself poised precariously between indie and major status. As a result, the group’s new long-player The Craft is somewhat unsure what it wants to be. On one hand, Gab and Xcel aspire to transcend their “cult act” status with a broader, more accessible sound that still falls short of overly commercial. On the other hand, there’s also a push to keep it real by sticking to the things that made them successful in the first place: Xcel’s atmospheric, multilayered soundscapes full of textured sonic strata and funky, jazzy boom-bip, and Gab’s alliterative, melodic flow with its supercharged syntax and often-atypical topics.
For many a rap act, merely making a musical and artistic statement like The Craft would be an amazing accomplishment. But to quote De La Soul, stakes is high, and so are expectations. It’s taken for granted that Gab and Xcel will vibrate at higher frequencies, as they do on opener “World of Vibrations,” which mutates from basic beats and rhymes to a mantra-repeating vamp à la early Funkadelic. Speaking of P-Funk, George Clinton pops up on “Lotus Flower,” while Gab continues his alphabet aerobics on “Rhythm Sticks,” making an anagram out of the group’s name while showcasing his breath-control abilities with a sick-ass rhyme pattern. The prison-industrial complex gets pimp-slapped on “The Rise and Fall of Elliott Brown,” while “Side to Side” (with Pigeon John and Lateef) may be as close as Blackalicious will ever come to a club anthem. And it’s worth listening to “Give It to You” just to hear Lyrics Born rasp, Where my ballers at/If you can call it that. Meanwhile, Xcel revels in his Prince influences on “Black Diamonds and Pearls” and “Powers,” though the former comes a little too close to smooth jazz and the latter seems overcooked, despite a rock guitar-and-violin melody and enthusiastically soulful chorus.
Still, it’s hard for even jaded fans to complain too much about a track titled “Ego Sonic War Drums” — a description that fits about 90 percent of all rap music, but proves especially apt here. Similarly, “Supreme People” (whose title comes from a Run-DMC line) is classic Blackalicious, mixing traditional head-nod aesthetics with the left-of-center flavor of alt.rap and generating a booming, powerful track with conscious, if paradoxical, lyrics (Life is insane so insanity is a sane life). Ultimately, though, for all Blackalicious’ skills, The Craft seems like more of a holding pattern than a giant step forward into previously uncovered terrain.