Review: Blackalicious – Melodica EP
Published on September 11th, 2012 | Jonny Abrams
Blackalicious’s 1994 EP is as masterful an opening gambit as Rocksucker has heard, so the chance to blather superlatives about it activated by its recent re-release on Black Mines Records has been seized upon dutifully. Fans of Quannum’s first collaborative compilation Solesides Greatest Bumps will already be familiar with a number of these tracks, but what great tracks they are; to think they arrived some five years before Gift of Gab and Chief Xcel upped their game still further with the A2G EP, and moreover their still-astonishing first full-length album Nia.
Melodica opener “Lyric Fathom” introduces Gift of Gab’s talents to the world with an extraordinary stream-of-consciousness flow, supremely lyrical, authoritative, playful and even satisfyingly boastful: “I’m marvelous like Marvin Haggler in his prime / I carve kids like a dagger with my mind / I start shit with rappers who can’t rhyme / I spark spliffs cuz I don’t stagger when I’m high / But when I’m drunk I do, punk I do not acknowledge wackness / I gotcha grandma doin’ backflips and tumbles / I rumble through the jungle with Ali and Frazier / Call me the savior of hip hop” – chorus sounds like “Check out my lovely family”. Rocksucker can’t help but mishear the chorus as “check out my lovely family”, but this just adds to the fun.
“Rhymes for the Deaf, Dumb and Blind” reinforces the image of an emergent Gab spending all day freestyling with Latyrx duo Lateef the Truthspeaker and Lyrics Born (or, as he was then, Asia Born), its lyrics wielding more violent imagery as a tongue-in-cheek way of conveying his supreme confidence in his own ability even at this stage: “With a grin or, get your chin jaw and your neck broke / And then I’ll rip off your arm and throw it in a stew / Boy I’ll make mincemeat of you”. This violence is only figurative: there’s nothing gangsta going on here, in fact quite the opposite, as laid bare in “I floored niggaz with the skills / I’m sick and bored, of all the triggers and the steel / That you’re cappin, why don’t you give all that weak shit a rest / And start rappin? – I’m puffin the buddha bless, yes I’m packin
BOWLS”. Rocksucker wouldn’t know how much to attribute Blackalicious’s unique sound and peaceful outlook to the mind-expanding properties of marijuana, but it can’t have hurt.
Chief Xcel hadn’t yet fully honed his dazzlingly technicolour production style but his beats do all they need to do here to give lift-off to Gab’s lyrical whirlwinds; on “Swan Lake”, however, he picks a real doozy of a sample, one so laid-back and luxuriously lounging that Gab reined in to more introspective terrain, laying the foundations for Nia in the process. “Not saying I’m the baddest but I know I got potential” he acknowledges with the humility that would come to characterise him more so than the prior bragging, placing his utterances of “I can do anything” in more of an inspirational/motivational context than anything to do with blowing his own trumpet (or indeed the sublime trumpets of the accompanying music).
“Swan Lake” is a classic all ends up, and arguably Blackalicious’s first truly great track; it’s groovy, warming and thoughtful, lines like “A baller ain’t a baller if he ain’t got balls / A scholar ain’t a scholar if he ain’t got scholastic education… A human ain’t a human if he don’t make mistakes / The name of this song is ‘Swan Lake'” coming over like the hip-hop equivalent of gazing at your own reflection in a gently rippling body of water. “I think what everybody’s strivin for is peace of mind /
I’m thinkin the world is full of inner places that are out there to find / Manipulated minds need to make an escape / And the name of this song is Swan Lake” – it’s all so sublime that even the shout-outs at the end feel meaningful to the listener, especially if like Rocksucker you’re geeky enough to wonder if “my nephew Frank” is the same nephew who was about to come out of the penitentiary in Gil Scott-Heron-featuring Blazing Arrow cut “First in Flight”.
A rather stoned-sounding jam about the “mediocracy” in both rap and life as a whole, “Attica Black” sees Gab test-running the ‘lover man’ style he’d resuscitate over ten years later on “Powers” from Blackalicious’s last album, 2005’s The Craft, the night time if you like to the daytime of Blazing Arrow. Lyrics Born surfaces on this one, and then we have the also rather stoned-sounding interlude “Cheezit Terrorist” before the smokily funky/funkily smoky “40oz For Breakfast” sees Gab meet himself halfway with a flow that deploys both the laid-back warm of “Swan Lake” and the relentlessness of Melodica‘s first two tracks.
“40oz For Breakfast” is certainly the most troubled-sounding number here, Gab rhyming about drinking and smoking until he forgets all about his struggle to get by, and it’s hard not to equate this lament with the comment “we’re all human and our actions catch up to us” from this public address concerning his recent health issues. As crass as it may seem to point out, we hope that there is plenty of consolation to be taken from all the great music his particular path through life has resulted in thus far.
“Deep in the Jungle” is the fourth track here after the opening trio to have been included on Solesides Greatest Bumps, its sparse beatscape sporadically playing host to baseball organ and wild flutters of flute as Gab, Lateef and Lyrics (sorry, Asia) take it in turns to demonstrate what outstandingly skillful and original MCs they all were even at this stage, not least Asia whose conversational inflections on “I can’t even describe you so I ain’t even gonna try” and “…this I don’t dispute, but you knew…” are brimming with character. Roll on the next Latyrx album, we say.
All of this leaves “Change”, a bonus track on this re-release with production by Xcel, DJ Shadow and UNKLE’s James Lavelle; indeed the satisfyingly crunchy beats have a touch of the Endtroducing….. about them, and the all-round vibe is smokily, loungingly in keeping with Melodica as a whole. Rocksucker would have liked the soaring “Blue Flames” to play some part, but that was always billed as Quannum MCs rather than Blackalicious featuring Latyrx or anything like that. So, just for good measure, here it is…
Melodica has long been a sought-after rarity trading for eye-watering amounts – we don’t know this as fact, but let’s get some mythology going here – so be sure to welcome it to the realm of the readily available by getting hold of it and falling in love with it. Blackalicious would go on to achieve perfection, but for what it is this debut EP merits…
Rocksucker says: Four and a Half Quails out of Five!