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“Imani, Vol. 1” by Blackalicious

“Imani, Vol. 1” by Blackalicious


It’s been nearly ten years since the veteran rap duo and linguistic luminaries Blackalicious put out a new album. The hiatus is over, and Imani Vol. 1, the first of a planned three-volume collection set to be released over the next two years, delivers the kind of sounds that make that wait fully worth it.

We’ve long known that Gift of Gab and Chief Xcel are a match made in hip hop heaven. Gab’s lyrical prowess is unmatched in both its breadth and complexity, and Xcel has managed to somehow be both celebrated and underrated as a DJ and producer. Over the years since 2005’s The Craft, they’ve popped up here and there with appearances or one-off projects. The upcoming three-part project, however, marks the first of a sustained Blackalicious run marked by stellar beats, inspired guest verses and expansive, diverse sounds.

Solid from bottom to top, Imani Vol. 1 is a lush mixture of instrumental layers and Gab’s typical relentless verses, which, as usual, take several listens to fully unpack. “On Fire Tonight,” the lead single featuring Myron of Myron & E, is a raucous, horn-driven excursion interspersed with heavy guitar-powered hooks. Compared to earlier Blackalicious, the track is more of an earworm than a spoken-word wonder. But, fittingly, that is the nature of Imani. The live instruments are present on nearly every track, sometimes a plinking piano on “Escape,” sometimes a doo-wop style sample, as heard on “We Did It Again,” other times industrial electric guitar (“On Fire Tonight”). These influences are no coincidence. After years of working separate projects, Gab and Xcel have clearly made a concerted effort to take a sonically inclusive approach to all facets of the music.

Stylistically, Imani is an interesting turn. It’s got elements of smooth G-Funk noticeably juxtaposed with the brasher sounds we’ve heard recently on projects like Run the Jewels. Gift of Gab’s lyrics, while dense as ever, take on more of a melodic quality over the musically explorative tracks procured by Chief Xcel.

Imani also features several impressive guest turns. Bosko and his talk box spit out a catchy and nod-inducing hook on “Inspired By;” Fantastic Negrito’s turn on “Love’s Gonna Save the Day” marks a soulful rhythm and blues turn; and Imani Coppola is as formidable as ever on “The Sun.” There are, of course, a handful of other guests that will doubtless get their dues as well, including Zap Mama, Lateef the Truthspeaker and The Watts Prophets.

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It’s difficult to listen to Imani Vol. 1 and not immediately want more in the form of volume 2, but this record continues to reward listen after listen. Blackalicious has returned to the top of the game. »

– Charles Trowbridge