Blackalicious return for the first time in a solid decade with the potent Imani, Vol. 1, their introductory installment in a forthcoming trilogy. MC Timothy “Gift of Gab” Parker and DJ Xavier “Chief Xcel” Mosley appear eager to show they haven’t lost a step in the intervening years, and it’s a pleasure to witness their effortless grace, hard-won over time. Gab’s verbal acrobatics bounce and lock in with Xcel’s pulsating, restless production: a simmering bouillabaisse of live instrumentation, old soul samples, spoken word interludes, and vocal hooks.
Backing a wordsmith of Gab’s caliber, Xcel could be forgiven for hiding in the shadows, but that’s never been his style; rather, his invigorating soundscapes fuel Gab’s wordplay, bringing forth scorching delivery (“Ashes to Ashes” and “On Fire Tonight”) and newfound dexterity, from the vibes & flute loops of “We Did It Again” to the hard funk of “I Like the Way You Talk.”
Titled with the Swahili word for “faith”, Afro-pop luminary Zap Mama’s breathy chants bookend Imani, Vol. 1 with that mantra. It’s a virtue that has evidently sustained the group, as proclaimed by Amde of the Watts Prophets on the opening track: “Never let life’s troubles block your flow. Have faith and get where you’re trying to go.”
Along with faith, the circular nature of time is the theme throughout: “That Night” brings back old friends and Quannum Projects labelmates The LifeSavas to reminisce and deliver a lesson in seamless lyrical chemistry. “Twist of Time” calls back to the deep jazzy roots of debut LP Nia (1999). And album centerpiece “Alpha and Omega” commences with an ethereal clip from a James Baldwin interview: “Life is always smashing you into pieces. You pick it up and start again.” From there, the track morphs into a hyped rave-up of powerful horns and forceful verses from Gab, Lateef the Truthspeaker, and Lyrics Born.
Blackalicious partially crowdfunded Imani, Vol. 1 via a Pledge Music campaign, and they seem honored to give back. “Inspired By” pays heartfelt tribute to fans and friends who’ve been there since the beginning, with guest Bosko’s talkbox providing a soulful, funky vibe.
The duo have promised that the second and third volumes of Imani will focus more on guest appearances. But Vol. 1 proves that after all this time, Blackalicious are happy to deliver the goods themselves.