Assortments of Thought

A Brighter Side of Rap

Posted on: January 17th, 2011

For various reasons, a lot of people aren’t too fond of rap and hip-hop music. Some simply don’t like the style, of artists rapping over beats. A few, sadly, shun it for its black origins, out of a sense of racism. Many, however, are simply turned away by the subject matter they hear: killing, violence, profanity, drug abuse, cheap sex, disrespect to women, and get rich no matter what schemes. While the artists that focus on these themes are not without talent or skill, it’s understandable that many people aren’t interested in what they have to say. Yet rap is not defined solely by these subjects, and indeed, there is a lot of rap out there that not only avoids them, but even delves into issues like persevering and working hard, setting good examples for kids, and taking life seriously and positively, among more trivial topics. I would therefore like to highlight the lyrics of one rap duo in particular, Blackalicious, that expresses such sentiments, as well as discuss those of Gift of Gab, Blackalicious’ emcee, solo, if only to demonstrate this often-overlooked side of hip-hop.

Note, however, that I’m not putting down or dissing any of the many talented rap acts out there. Indeed, good rapping takes far more talent than a lot of its detractors realize, regardless of the subject matter. (Just listen to someone trying to rap, for instance, by choosing rhymes just for the sake of rhyming and to fill time, to get a sense of how bad rap lyrics can be when written by someone with no real grasp of the pen.) No, to write good raps takes talent, and I dare say that goes for composing good beats as well, the task of the DJs and producers and such. Still, many people don’t find music of any genre centered on violence, drugs, cheap sex, and excessive profanity appealing, and because they think rap is solely about these themes, which isn’t right, they feel they don’t like it, which isn’t fair. Thus, again, why I want to highlight some acts that have other things to say in their raps, Blackalicious and the Gift of Gab, but without denying the talent that all professional rappers share.

Blackalicious, then, is a duo composed of rapper Gift of Gab (Timothy Parker) and producer Chief Xcel (Xavier Mosley), who have given us many wonderful songs that defy the mainstream image of what rap is. To date, they’ve released three full-length albums: Nia (2000), Blazing Arrow (2002), and The Craft (2005), plus a couple EPs, with a fourth album hopefully on the way later this year. (See the Wikipedia article “Blackalicious,” intro, para. 1). Lyrically, Gab raps about some profound things in earnest sometimes, and other times about less serious, more fun things, but what he doesn’t portray in his raps are the likes of violence, drug abuse, and so on. Although some of his lyrics might be considered preachy, with only one or two exceptions, I personally have never perceived them that way, just earnest messages that he wishes to share. Musically, I’m not sure how to classify Xcel’s beats, although I’ve heard people say they’ve got R&B influences in them at least. There’s also often melody and a variety of sounds used, but as with all rap music, at the core, they’re still beats, good for rapping over. No matter, you’d have to listen to some of Blackalicious’ music to really know how they sound.

As for Gab’s lyrics, however, I’ll share some of the more memorable examples, album by album, and comment on each album as a whole as well. Thus, for instance, consider this snippet from the song “Making Progress,” from Nia:

… everybody gotta struggle that’s the way of the world,
can’t develop biceps if you don’t do curls,
can’t achieve a garden if you never water your crops,
if you never pay your dues then you won’t get props,
couldn’t eat a proper meal without cookin’ it first,
can’t receive a paycheck if you don’t do work,
if it wasn’t for the rain then the trees won’t grow,
when the spring came around what a sight to bestow,
when you face adversities dark clouds won’t last,
if you never study how do you expect to pass,
the grasshoppers laid around while the ants did chores,
when the winter came around he was left outdoors.

Although my initial reaction to these lyrics was that the song had a good message but it didn’t have repeat value, I soon discovered otherwise. “Making Progress” also covers things like overcoming alcoholism and reforming after incarceration, and while Gab’s lyrics direct the message specifically to the black community, it’s a message that everyone can be inspired by or aspire to.

Another fine song from Nia is “Sleep,” which offers some best wishes after a hard day’s work for the possibilities ahead:

Gazing outside the window, the sunny skies dwindle,
and now it’s full of stars, a hurling comet soars,
while during the body slumber, the soul begins to wander,
to dream dimensions, see the inner conscious doesn’t pause,
keeps moving where it’s bound to, say now I lay me down to,
after that stretch and yawn, energy left and gone,
the sandman’s on your shoulder, whispering in your ear, he told ya,
let all your problems go, tonight I’m rappin’, hear my song,
a day of work completed, a night of rest is needed,
almost done read a book, but eyelids too heavy to read it,
the fireplace is kindling, snug with your queen and building,
about the victories, tomorrow’s gonna bring to y’all.

Set to a looping piano along with the rest of the beat, these lyrics and the song as a whole are downright beautiful, both comforting and peaceful.

One final choice selection from Nia is “Shallow Days,” of which part of the third verse goes like this:

… inspiring gangsters and macks who at the young age of four,
be seein’ more drama than war veterans insteada learnin’ God’s laws,
and hip-hop is a voice that we enlist at,
to express how we be feelin’ about this and that,
but music does reflect life, and kids look up to what you portray,
and they mimic what you act like,
it’s time for a new day, an era in rap, conscious-styles,
makin’ ’em aware of the happenin’, man,
but the ears seem more steered toward self-annihilation,
so then they might laugh, and write this off,
like I’m out here just blowin’ wind, maybe label this soft,
or unreal, somethin’ they can’t feel,
while they keep yellin’ “murder murder murder, kill kill kill.”

The song itself depicts a meeting between Gab and a rapper bent on rapping about and living the street life, with Gab insisting there’s a better way, and again, it’s just a really nice song to listen to.

Overall, Nia is probably my favorite Blackalicious album, largely because of the wonderful lyrics. In another great story song, for instance, “Deception,” Gab tells of a guy who went from nothing to famous rapper, but in the process, came to value money more than quality rapping and dissed all his friends, until when the popular sound changed and he wasn’t in demand anymore, everyone simply laughed as he fell. But Nia isn’t solely about these moralistic themes, if that’s an apt way to call them. “Do This My Way,” for instance, brings guest rapper Lyrics Born on board to rap about the joy of rapping, while “Cliff Hanger,” produced by guest producer DJ Shadow, tells a spaced-out, secret agent-like tale involving the chase for “a lost scroll that contains directions to a hidden village comprised of gold.” Finally, on the short track “Ego Trip by Nikki Giovanni,” the poet and professor Nikki Giovanni guests, and talks of how beautiful and hip a woman she is (or rather her character is), how she gave so much to the world, and how she’s related to many renowned figures, including religious ones. I doubt that description does her track any justice, and you have to hear how Giovanni delivers it with her voice, but it’s really captivating in its own way, another track that might seem to have little repeat value that you’ll find does. But in short, Nia is a fine album, and an excellent example of rap that doesn’t tout the expected subject matter.

Moving on to Blazing Arrow, consider the second verse of “Make You Feel That Way”:

Christmas Day, when your mama got your first bike,
type a feelin’ when you went and won your first fight,
how your team felt, winnin’ championship games,
celebratin’ in a huddle, dancin’ in this rain,
have a thought, see a shootin’ star cross your screen,
put in hard work, finally you’re livin’ your dream,
deaf man get his hearing, now in come vibes,
blind man gain his sight, sees his first sunrise,
dumb man speakin’ out, now he’s loud and clear,
birth of your child, smile’s so proud ya wear,
goin’ in your third eye for the styles ya hear,
makin’ music that’ll bump for a thousand years,
eatin’ right, feeling conscious, like helpless first,
said a prayer that’s sincere, and you felt it work,
times I feel I wanna shout, man it’s real that way,
wanna think of things that make you feel that way.

Set to a jazzy and serene beat by Xcel, this is one of Blackalicious’ most affective songs, almost sure to make you feel that way.

I’ve implied that Gab’s lyrics are sometimes just plain fun, so consider these snippets from “4000 Miles,” a song about the joy of touring and sharing music:

We … take … a journey through music, right now … (x2).

… burn it ’till your thermometer, stretch a million kilometers,
connect the population of Earth, to one another for real.

Music … delivers from within, and it covers up everything,
music … when melody and rhythm get to movin’ in unity,
move it … one force, one love, one whole community,
do it … keep travelin’ on, keep travelin’ on.

Now see we rock around the clock, we don’t stop for nothin’,
gonna take it to the top, all nonstop, no frontin’,
people listen when it drops, ’cause it speaks to some’in’,
in their souls when they all alone, spacin’ in the zone …

Along with some of the best beats Xcel’s ever produced, and guest spots by Chali 2na (previously of the disbanded Jurassic 5) and Lateef the Truth Speaker, this song is a fine example of Blackalicious at their most fun. (The only caution, in fact, is that it’s one of the very few Blackalicious tracks with expletives, albeit only a few non-literal ones in the third verse. Incidentally, like all of Blackalicious’ albums, Blazing Arrow carries no explicit content label, because such content is so scarce.)

Overall, Blazing Arrow isn’t as great as Nia, but it’s still strong, and has greater diversity in lyrics and sound. “First in Flight,” for instance, featuring the poet and performer Gill Scott-Heron, inspires you to reach for your full potential and see past your troubles, while “Nowhere Fast,” featuring ?uestlove (of the Roots) on drums, speaks of dropping your vices and committing to a plan. On the other hand, “Chemical Calisthenics,” produced by Cut Chemist, gives Gab a chance to show his emcee skills to a degree not usually heard, while “Aural Pleasure,” featuring Jaguar Wright, is simply a soulful, finger-snapping kind of song about good music. Thus Blazing Arrow more than holds its own, and was, I believe, the first Blackalicious album to go at all mainstream and really catch everyone’s attention.

Finishing with The Craft, for another example of Blackalicious fun, consider the first verse and chorus of “Powers”:

Met her outta town, in a small cafe,
she had the motion of the ocean, how her hips did sway,
she had, everybody lookin’ back, and everybody tookin’ back,
and anything she wanted, all the guys obeyed, now,
(she was) a site for sore pupils, and uh,
(she likes) to flaunt it ’cause she know she got it, and,
(she does) the most intoxicating things, to make a man with worries
feel like everything is okay, she got

Powers … and I think I want to get in her spell,
powers … every bone inside me, all of my cells. (x2)

Gab doesn’t rap about relationships or women often, but the few times he does, he does so respectfully. (Although it’s arguable that the woman in this song spends time with lots of men, the lyrics clearly imply she’s self-respectful and in control. As well, this is certainly not a violence against women or women-as-willful-objects sort of song either, non-offensive even for the youngest child.)

Finally, consider Gab at his most personal, here in the third verse and chorus of “The Craft”:

This ain’t leisure, although it feels,
it is a duty, a way to live, another way to give,
another way to just, have communion with the source of
the sun and moon and, a way to pay the bills,
displayin’ skills, I take it real serious,
the vibe so mysterious, not just one more day to kill …
and I could lose my connection,
if I do not respect it enough, fade away it will …
day-to-day it gives energies,
that replenish me, if I believe, and I say it will,
and act on it, ’cause action is the key to freedom,
only way to be a leader, lead by the way you live.

This craft, this beat, this rhyme, this vibe, this style,
they say music gives me life, from a source inside that is forever flowin’ …
this stage, this mic, this crowd, this show, this life,
I’ve been given a gift tonight, and for that, I vow to be a vessel. (x3)

A perfect way to finish the album, complete with Xcel’s almost science fiction-sounding beat, underlying the transcendence of the material.

I wouldn’t say, however, that The Craft matches either Nia or Blazing Arrow overall. “Automatique,” for instance, featuring the now-disbanded Floetry, is another wonderful “struggle and define who you are” type of song, while “Supreme People,” critical of materialism and perhaps even capitalism itself, is a rare but strong showing of Gab’s political side. “The Fall and Rise of Elliot Brown,” however, about a guy who went astray only to later find success, feels a little preachy and over-produced for once, while “Rhythm Sticks,” a rhymed tour of each letter in “Blackalicious,” tries hard to be fun but doesn’t quite pull it off. This isn’t to say though that The Craft is a bad album, just that it’s not quite up to the level of Blazing Arrow and particularly Nia. To anyone who dislikes most mainstream rap, however, it’s just as welcoming as those two are, and another fine example of this other side of rap.

Finally, I’d like to briefly discuss Gift of Gab, the solo artist’s work as well. As a solo artist then, Gift of Gab has released two albums so far: 4th Dimensional Rocketships Going Up (2004) and Escape 2 Mars (2009). Both stand with Blackalicious’ albums in terms of lyrical quality, and the beats, produced by people other than Xcel, seem to fit the albums nicely. Of the two, 4th Dimensional Rocketships Going Up is very quiet and personal, with content ranging from reflections on today’s fast pace (“Rat Race”), to reminisces of decades past (“Flashback”) and personal struggles with alcohol (“Moonshine”). In “Up,” Gab presents a quiet conversation with a cabbie about third-world poverty and the potential of all humanity, while with “Way of the Light,” he offers a simple feel-good track about the joys of letting go. The standout track, however, has to be “In a Minute Doe,” a letter from Gab to his incarcerated nephew, telling him of all the potential and possibilities that lay ahead of him, and the unlimited freedom we all have of the mind:

There’s a purpose underneath it all,
divine plan, scheme, evolve, and do what you gotta, and
grow and learn and find your proper callin’,
stay strong and take in all the knowledge that you can,
stay healthy and keep in touch, I’ll get them letters flowin’ fam,
‘dis ain’t goodbye, all it is, it’s just a test to make ya stronger, be a soldier,
from here we only move forward, upward, onward, and over the hump,
and yo I know that it’s a lotta years,
but it’s a whole lotta precious life left for you to live,
God dwells within, find Him inside, free your soul,
no matter what they’ll never lock up your mind,
so let your thoughts flow, free, and be the best you can be,
learn from your mistakes, you gotta destiny man,
your life’s purpose is to take it there,
recipe, expand your mind, read, and workout,
get your plans together and focus,
the day you come out, we all gonna party like it’s 2999 …
but I’ma see you in a minute doe …
sincerely, Uncle Tim, Gift of Gab, Supreme Lyrical.

A beautiful, introspective album overall, and well worth a listen, especially with tracks like “In a Minute Doe.”

Escape 2 Mars, in contrast, is far less personal, more heavily produced, and a tad more political. The title track, for instance, expounds the threat of environmental abuse and what may happen if we don’t do something about it, while “Electric Waterfalls” laments the rise of technology to the detriment of humanitarian values. On the other hand, “In Las Vegas” is an upbeat, snappy dance track about a trip for purification gone awry, while in “Rhyme Travel,” Gab raps about his spiritual travels in writing all his music. Finally, “Light Years” is an absolutely awesome, danceable meditation of sorts on the nature of space, time, and existence:

As I pass Mars, mass stars, planets all ajar
in the solar system, see me floatin’ farther,
out of the galaxy, I realize, there are more,
how further does it go, wonder if there are no
endings, beginnings, yesterday is just tomorrow,
seen another Sun, another Earth, another Mars,
so far into space, wonder will I see the Father,
learn the mysteries that were written by the Author,
if it doesn’t end, where’s it from, where’d it start though,
does it have direction or is all of this all for,
nothin’ just a bunch of molecules who have lost our way,
to my left, thought I saw a flying saucer.

… opened up my mind’s eye, told me that a world was,
dwellin’ deep within, way faster than this world was,
flesh is temporary, just a dream, just a surface,
everyone’s connected to one aim, and one purpose,
empty out your thoughts, tame the lions in the circus,
opened up the door, just to see what was inside,
woke up in my room, it was all in my mind …
it’s all in the mind … (x3)
yo.

Shine your light now … travelin’ light years …
burn your light now … travelin’ light years. (x2)

Another fine album, hard to compare with 4th Dimensional Rocketships Going Up given the difference in tone but a step up from The Craft, and another great example of this other side of hip-hop.

Thus as Blackalicious and the Gift of Gab prove, there’s a lot more to rap than just the mainstream stuff, although it’s a side that isn’t as visible or known. Indeed, rap has subgenres like any music, and all the violence, excessive profanity, and negative attitudes are associated with at least one, gansta, which is unfortunately the best-known because it’s the best-selling. (See the Wikipedia article “Gangsta Rap,” intro, para. 1). For people not interested in such subject matter, however, there’re numerous other choices, for beyond the talent inherent in all rap comes unlimited sources for rappers to feel inspired by, and therefore to rap about. I’ve featured Blackalicious and the Gift of Gab at length, but I’d also like to mention Jurassic 5, a group that did it old skool and often rapped of how they were preserving a better form; and the various solo works and collaborations of the Quannum crew (Gab’s label-mates), such as Lateef the Truth Speaker and Lyrics Born, and Latyrx, Lateef & the Chief, and the Mighty Underdogs. (Some other possibilities include Heavy D & the Boyz, the Roots, and Digable Planets, although I don’t know enough about those groups to say for sure.) So if you think you might like rap were it not for the subject matter you’ve heard, give one of the groups I’ve mentioned a try, depending on your tastes and what you discover about them. Most especially though, if you’d like rap that’s not only nonviolent and positive, but even inspiring, cerebral, and affective, try Blackalicious and the Gift of Gab. There truly is a brighter side of rap, albeit one that most people aren’t familiar with, and without a doubt, one that anyone might like and, in any case, one that deserves better recognition.

References:

Blackalicious: Various songs on the CDs Nia, 2000, Blazing Arrow, 2002, & The Craft, 2005.

Gift of Gab: Various songs on the CDs 4th Dimensional Rocketships Going Up, 2004 & Escape 2 Mars, 2009.

en.Wikipedia.org: “Blackalicious,” at Wikipedia as of Jan. 17th, 2011
[http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blackalicious].

en.Wikipedia.org: “Gansta Rap,” at Wikipedia as of Jan. 17th, 2011
[http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gangsta_rap].

©2011, D.S. Applemin. All rights reserved.

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