It’s a bit hard to believe that hip-hop, as a genre, is old enough for grumpy old men to number among its ranks; it’s even harder to believe that it’s been a decade since the heyday of Quannum, the collective that counted Blackalicious, Latyrx, and Pigeon John as decorated members. I remember reviewing music in 2002, the year Blackalicious’ Blazing Arrow was released; I’d become so enamored with the album that I wrote a gimmicky concept review of it in my head. The concept was that the review would take place ten years in the future, framed as a music-rag editorial that examined the impact Blazing Arrow had on the art form in the intervening decade. That piece never came to fruition, and it’s probably just as well; after all, there was no way to predict the parade of trends that would come to characterize hip-hop in the 2000s. Still, it’s hard not to look back wistfully at those highwater Quannum albums – Nia, Blazing Arrow, even underrated records by Latyrx and Maroons seem both tenaciously ahead of their time and relics of a very specific time and place in retrospect.
Blackalicious, the dynamic duo formed by the lightning-in-a-bottle wonder-twin powers of emcee Gift of Gab and boardsman Chief Xcel, has been pretty quiet since 2005’s The Craft, but there’s a reason heads still remember the twosome fondly and yearn for a fresh platter of collaborative wax; like Dre and Big Boi or Meat Loaf and Steinman, the two simply fit together. Gift of Gab is, of course, a scene-stealer; he’s an emcee’s emcee, reams of ridiculously well-developed lines tumbling from his plus-sized larynx with dynamic vigor, DNA strands of intricate vowel sounds wrapping snugly around each other with nary a stumble or a missed line in his repertoire, thematically encompassing wistful nostalgia, breezy good-time rhymes, and sign-o’-the-times pontificating with what seemed like ease. But Xcel was always a necessary part of the equation – his production style predated the nerdy crate-digging Kanye West and Danger Mouse would ride to mainstream success, but remained indebted to classic hip-hop, often seeming to be cut from the same cloth as hip-hop savant Prince Paul. In the years since The Craft, Gift of Gab has continued working with reasonable frequency, applying his lyrical dexterity to the occasional solo jaunt; his third, The Next Logical Progression, is perhaps his most sonically palatable exercise on the solo tip, but right around now is the time we start questioning when he’s gonna link back up with the only producer that can handle spinning his rhymes into something truly epic.
Which isn’t to say that The Next Logical Progression is bad. On the contrary: it may be his best solo record to date. There were moments of 4th Dimensional Rocketships Going Up and Escape 2 Mars that seemed like pale facsimiles of the trailblazing science-fiction aesthetic of Blazing Arrow‘s back half, but lacked panache without Xcel’s sterling production skills. Progression, meanwhile, adheres closer to the Illmatic aesthetic; at a breezy 12 tracks, it never feels overambitious or flagging in its energy, and laid-back funk and piano loops are the order of the day. The beats here are no great shakes, technically, but they’re often fun – the bare-bones synth figure on “So So Much”, for example, sounds great when a warm horn section swells under it, and the sprightly boom-baps of “Dream Warriors” and “Rise” bring to mind the spirit of the best Common and Brother Ali records, respectively.
Lyrically, Gift of Gab remains as positive as ever, but his legendary breath control and multi-syllable game flags a bit here; “NLP” and “Protocol” are reminiscent of classic Gab, his verbal gymnastics as cognitively sound as they are exciting demonstrations of assonance and rhyme. He’s certainly a potent emcee, but age has cooled his fire substantially; outfitted with his most conventional set of beats yet, Gab adjusts his rhyming accordingly for the most part. Sometimes, this yields results – songs like “Dream Warriors” and “Market & 8th” bring Gab’s unheralded gift for vivid storytelling to the forefront, channeling classics like “Make You Feel That Way” and “Nowhere Fast” effortlessly. Elsewhere, we get dead in the water tracks like romantic-misadventure tracks “Toxic” and “Effed Up”; in the former, Gab glumly intones “damn me, damn you/ damned if I don’t, damned if I do” by way of a hook over a particularly ugly two-chord motif, and in the latter, he examines the complexities of intergender relationships with gems like “it’s effed up when a girl treats you bad, and later on you find out she’s doing bad.” It’s here where Gab’s follies are thrown into stark contrast; the Gab of the brilliant “Nowhere Fast” wouldn’t have fussed with bricks like “it’s effed up, and I don’t wanna be like that.” And the less said about the increasingly petulant-feeling barbs bemoaning the dearth of quality lyricism in modern hip-hop, the better; great art shows, it doesn’t tell, and the Gift of Gab of The Next Logical Progression is only occasionally showing us a viable alternative.
Perhaps it’s unfair to grade Gab against his previous triumphs; still, interim solo projects only serve to illustrate to us why we fanboys so desperately long to hear him back with Chief Xcel again. But, as solo projects go, The Next Logical Progression is far from awful; it borders on repetitive at times, and occasionally feels curiously toothless, but Gab at half-mast is better than most emcees’ A-game.