A few months ago I rode through rush-hour Times Square traffic in the backseat of a rented town car, squished between the two members of Blackalicious, both of whom could probably take me in a game of whatever they'd like. "If you start getting into things like, 'Oh, if you have singing on your record, it's not underground,' then what you're doing is being a follower," MC Gift of Gab said as we passed a Virgin Megastore or a T.G.I. Friday's or the awful WWF restaurant. "It's like you're saying that music can't be like this because it's not cool, because it's not acceptable. Well, really, when you're dealing with any kind of art, you're dealing with something that has no limitations. If you wanna make a hip-hop album with an R&B feel to it, or you wanna make it opera or make it whatever, just make it dope. Just make good music."
Normally that type of earnest optimism rubs me the wrong way--I'm pretty sure I heard at least a couple of limitations on Vanessa Carlton's record--but I haven't heard a hip-hop record that I like more this year than Blazing Arrow, Blackalicious' new one. Gab mentioned singing on hip-hop records because I'd asked him if he and Chief Xcel, his DJ-producer partner, ever felt alienated from the rap underground because of how musical their records are, how freely they pull from soul and R&B idioms and how contemporary their records sound in contrast to the old-school revivalism that suffocates a lot of indie hip-hop. He was nice about it, but I felt like he was trying to say yes.
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Jurassic 5, who doesn't play here with Blackalicious but might hang out with the group if their schedules permit, is less opposed to that revivalism, which is too bad, since Quality Control, its 2000 full-length debut, could have been way more than an enjoyable way to spend an hour. (And they have a new one, Power in Numbers, coming October 8.) I've never ridden around with them in a rented town car, though, so perhaps they should speak for themselves.