Blackalicious's 2002 effort, Blazing Arrow, was one of the bigger "conscious rap" records of that year, making a bazillion Top 10 lists and earning a nomination for a Short List Prize (the U.S. equivalent of Britain's Mercury Prize). But to my ears, Arrow sounded tame, more of a hodgepodge of dull melodies and tepid lyrics than anything truly remarkable.
Not so Fourth Dimensional Rocketships Going Up, the first solo record by Blackalicious's MC, Gift of Gab (a.k.a. Tim Parker). Written over the last two years, the LP ditches Blackalicious's smoothed-out musical polyglot for heavenly '70s-style soul music. Gabby T and Seattle producers Vitamin D and Jake One employ the kind of relentless hooks and warm funkitude of Sly Stone, Stevie Wonder, and Curtis Mayfield without seeming like outright thieves. Sure, there are a few obvious lifts -- the theme to Welcome Back, Kotter on "Flashback," Taco's "Puttin' on the Ritz" for Gab's "The Writz" -- but most of the tracks are built from the ground up, only hinting at nostalgia. Gab uses a gorgeous kalimba loop on "Way of the Light," a floating harp flurry for "The Ride of Your Life," and wah-wah guitar throughout "Ride On." He also enlists Omega Rae, Choklate, and Vursatyl (of Quannum's Lifesavas crew) for sweet harmonies on several tracks, while Herman (Pops) Brown supplies psychedelic Funkadelic-esque guitar on "Stardust."
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Lyrically, Rocketships finds Gab spreading his wings while continuing his always remarkable floetry. There's still plenty of braggadocio ("I could get you higher than the seeds of a poppy") and odes to a higher power (ugh), but the MC also tries his hand at an actual love song ("To Know You") and a bit of storytelling ("In a Minute Doe," a letter to a nephew in prison). "Moonshine" might be his most personal track yet -- a dark, Wonder-worthy look at alcohol's murky grip. To hip-hop purists, Fourth Dimensional Rocketships Going Up may seem like a strange detour. But to me, it sounds as if Gab is just hitting his stride.