As rap progresses through middle age, coping mechanisms among veterans still in the game have been mixed: Some gloat about their success like nothing has changed (Jay Z); some have gotten nostalgic about their breakout years (Eminem); some have deliberately shed any semblance of an edge (Wu-Tang Clan). Amid a surge in cultural relevance the past few years—including a sample on a Rae Sremmurd track, Macklemore’s crediting them for major inspiration, and Daniel Radcliffe rapping “Alphabet Aerobics” on The Tonight Show—Blackalicious’ return after a decade-long hiatus was fraught with such potential comeback pitfalls and more. Thankfully, Imani, Vol. 1 succeeds by focusing on the music and a modest message, and setting aside any desire to prove, recapture, or define anything in particular about its creators or their careers.
The first album of a planned trilogy, Imani, Vol. 1 (“imani” is Swahili for “faith”), mostly stays true to the Sacramento duo’s fundamentals. The search for social justice and contemplation of black identity continues; Gift Of Gab’s relentless, densely intricate rhyming is out in full force; and Chief Xcel’s measured, funk- and soul-tinged production peppers the record with compulsive, memorable beats. Musically, Blackalicious has picked up a number of new genre interests and influences in its time apart (during which Gift Of Gab put out three solo albums and Chief Xcel collaborated with Ledisi and others)—compare, for example, the orchestrated, piano-plunking “Escape” to the cool, shadowy synth-pop club-bouncer “That Night” (featuring a where-the-hell-have-they-been appearance from Lifesavas) and the heavy, driving, electric-guitar-fueled “On Fire Tonight.” With live instrumentation mixed in on nearly every track, the stylistic experiments become parts of a cohesively eclectic whole rather than glaring, disruptive gimmicks.
Despite an as-expected amount of caustic cultural commentary, the record is also the most bright and hopeful collection the two have put together yet. After suffering diabetes-related kidney failure in 2012, Gift Of Gab’s positive perspective is on full display throughout, particularly on the album’s best cut, “The Sun,” a shimmery, vibrant slice of early ’90s rap-pop that soars on a glowing chorus by Imani Coppola. It all demonstrates that, for Blackalicious (as with most people), aging has not been a total transformation. The passion, combativeness, and creativity of youth don’t completely disappear—but they do share more brain space with contentment, even optimism. Imani, Vol. 1 confronts and captures this dichotomy with wisdom and honesty that’s uncommon among hip-hop’s first generation of fortysomethings.