With partner-in-crime Gift of Gab embarking on his critically-acclaimed solo opus, 4th Dimensional Rocketships Going Up, the other half of the West Coast institution Blackalicious has kept himself reasonably busy of late, mixing Fela Kuti classics with remarkable aplomb (the essential Fela Kuti â€˜mixtape’, The Underground Spiritual Game) and readying the release of this, the debut album of his group with Lateef the Truth Speaker of Latryx. With cries of “Blackalicious-lite” erupting from Quannum faithful worldwide, one finds, upon extended listening of “Ambush,” that such claims are not entirely far removed from the truth- this recording does not present a revelatory experience, sounding exactly like an Xcel and Lateef collaboration should.
To those unfamiliar with Quannum’s sonic wizardry, Xcel’s eclectic, irrepressibly vibrant style is one that encompasses salsa, meringue, afrobeat, dub and subwoofer-blowing, bassline-driven rap, a delectable melange of disparate influences that coalesce to form a soulful, hip-swaying sound. The percolating, omnipresent bass dominates in the mix, erecting mountainous, titanic grooves that caress and drown the speakers. Inventive percussion and hypnotic rhythms elegantly dance atop the mammoth basslines, while soulful live vocals coax b-boys and soul sisters to start shuffling towards the dancefloorâ€¦as usual, Xcel’s prowess behind the boards does not disappoint- the intergalactic funk of “Matter Of Time,” the infectiously bare symphony handclaps and tabla on “Don’t Stop” (complete with glorious breakdown and “Ooohs” and “Aaahs” on the hook), the Funkadelic-esque stomp of “Lester Hayes,” the Premo-esque boom-bap of “365,” every track on this 9 track platter is a highlight on its own, affirming Xcel’s place among contemporaries like Omid, Cut Chemist and Nu-Mark, a sonic architect of the highest order, possessing an acute sensitivity for the subtlest of details and the talent to channel a broad range of influences into one homogenous, incredibly listenable whole. Everything here is brilliantly orchestrated and excecuted (as per Xcel policy, live instrumentation is employed, giving everything an organic dynamism).
While Lateef does not exactly fill the shoes of the always brilliant Gift of Gab, his unfailingly precise, passionately-delivered and structurally impeccable rhymes are nothing short of impressive. In many senses, Lateef comes across as a more accessible incarnation of GoG, displaying a similar affinity for relevant topics (slicing through the seemingly euphoric, sweaty funk of “If” with acidic social commentary that points a finger at you, the passive bystander who remains static while the world implodes around us). While the technical aspect of his work remains highly prominent, Lateef does not indulge in technical virtuosity or structural experimentation quite as much as Gift Of Gab, choosing instead to opt for a more straightforward, accessible route that will appeal to the strange few who find Gift of Gab’s eccentric delivery a chore to digest. While several Quannum acolytes would much rather hear Gift waxing poetic over these compositions, this reviewer welcomes this change of pace- Gift of Gab appears on “Beautiful You” anyway. In some senses, Lateef is a superior mouthpiece for the political agenda of Blackalicious- his style is significantly more approachable and simplistic while retaining the distinctive, melodic delivery that Quannum’s stable of emcees have claimed as their own.
While many would claim that the brevity of this offering serves to detract from its quality, I would most certainly beg to differ- the fact that there are only 9 tracks on this release gives it an Illmatic-esque brilliance. As mentioned earlier in this review, each track is an enchanting, consummately mesmerizing experience, the perfect soundtrack for rap nerd house parties, and there is hardly a stale moment to be found throughout the proceedings. Shift around in your seats a bit after the concluding track and you’ll even be blessed with a bonus track, “First Draw,” which boasts thunderous drums, a warped, warbling electro riff that is almost Daft Punk and a reverb-soaked warmth that will have you reaching for the rewind button. Blackalicious-lite? Maybe, but I’d be lying to myself if I said that was a bad thing.