Baby Blak

For more than a decade now, hip-hop has struggled to reconcile its hustla and activist sides. During much of that time, the music has fostered a simmering ideological tension between outlaw "me first"-ism and communitarian selflessness. Like KRS One and Rakim before him, West Philadelphia rhymer Baby Blak effortlessly balances street reality with a sophisticated consciousness, proffering the blend through an understated, consistently elegant rhyme style. Backed on his debut album, Once You Go Blak, by the skills of some of hip-hop's most unsung producers, Blak spits his way through the dialectic with serious panache.

While major-label hip-hop bounces between conflated jiggyism and sappy humanist lip service, Blak's crafted narratives address real-life economics, substance abuse and crime with a voice that evokes a common-sense shrug more than it does a sermon. Despite its finger-wagging title, "Wake Up" finds Blak summoning a natural empathy to ask both cats on the corner and used young females why they settle for less: "I used to walk in your shoes, took the same steps…I was just like you / Get money, have sex, smoke weed, drink brew." Whether Blak's buying jerseys for the neighborhood Little League team ("The Youth"), criticizing South Africa's exploitative bling-stone trade ("Diamonds") or simply shining in battle ("Taster's Choice"), his nimble rhymes get buoyed by some highly dope arrangements. From Rob Dinero's pounding pianos and lofty soul flutes to DJ Revolution's twangy guitars and slippery string sweeps, the sonics here are on point. "I write rhymes to touch little kids' lives," says this Philly mike-man on "Once You Go Blak." As an MC who can sound this good while lyrically harmonizing the concerns of the street with those of the world, Baby Blak's got the best chance yet of unifying hip-hop's conflicting impulses.

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Ron Nachmann