The decline of hip hop music has been well documented. From its heyday in the early-to-mid ’90s the genre has taken a significant nosedive over the last decade and a half, churning out soulless, over-produced record company money spinners and industry-influenced mainstream collaborations on an all too regular basis. Thank goodness, then, for Blackalicious‘ 20 years. And, three studio albums on from their excellent debut Nia, the California natives Gift of Gab and Chief Xcel, are still “keeping it real”.
Widely heralded for Gab’s relentlessly complex rhyming, together with Xcel’s industrious mixing, the unshakeable duo have always succeeded by doing things their way, and with Imani, Vol. 1, their first album in 10 years and the initial of a three-volume series, they make no exception. The moment the in-your-face street anthem ‘Blacka’ hits you, you know they’re in business. In the space of two minutes and forty four seconds, Blackalicious remind us all about what we’ve been missing from rap; the track’s brash freestyle, uncompromising lyrics, and unadulterated beats effortlessly bringing it all back with a bang.
Of course there’s more to come, and with 16 tracks boasting elements of funk (‘Ashes to Ashes’), gangsta-rap (‘Escape’), old-skool (‘Twist Of Time’), crunk (‘On Fire Tonight’), and smooth RnB (‘Loves Gonna Save The Day’), there’s certainly plenty to be enjoyed. Although there is a notable period in the mid-section where Blackalicious seem to run out of ideas, signified by the somewhat lazily auto-tuned ‘Inspired By’, Gab and Xcel still finish things off with aplomb – the album’s closing title track with its African-inspired rhythms and lyrics just about summing up everything that’s good about the record.
It could be argued that Imani, Vol. 1 could have offered more in terms of creativity, particularly given the length of the duo’s absence, but in sticking to what they do best, Blackalicious have provided us with something even more profound: a refreshing reminder that hip hop is alive and well.