In following up 2002's transcendent Blazing Arrow, Blackalicious' Gift Of Gab and Chief Xcel face a daunting challenge: How do you improve on perfection? You don't, but that thankfully doesn't keep Blackalicious from trying anyway. Thanks to giddily life-affirming gems like "Make You Feel That Way" and "First In Flight," Blazing Arrow soars on a song-by-song basis, but where it really excels is as a cohesive whole, a beautifully sequenced masterpiece that maintains an astonishingly high level of quality from start to finish. It feels like a magnum opus, the kind of miracle that happens when an iconoclastic group of uncommon vision and ambition gains access to the resources of a major label.

From the first track, The Craft replicates Blazing Arrow's assured, patchouli-scented combination of rock-solid songcraft and spacey experimentation. Even before George Clinton funks up "Lotus Flower," the Parliament-Funkadelic influence is unmistakable, even though "Rhythm Sticks," "Your Move," and "My Pen & Pad" all get locked into monotonous funk grooves that don't really go anywhere. Less expected but even more delightful are the retro synths of "World Of Vibrations," which feel like a mere warm-up to the skinny-tie-sporting majesty of "Powers." As before, Blackalicious draws adroitly on multiple generations of black music. But with its stuttering drums, monster chorus, infectious synthesizer lines, and rapturous celebration of female sexuality, "Power" could easily pass for a knockout new-wave single from 1981: It's the most perfect fusion of hip-hop and new wave since Andre 3000's "Hey Ya" suggested what it might sound like if Little Richard fronted The Attractions.


As if to atone for violating rap's unwritten rule against depicting feminine sexuality as anything other than a destructive, malevolent force, the playful, goofy "Side To Side" casts an irreverent light on the perils of the female libido gone horribly awry. Meanwhile, tracks like "Supreme People" marry the idealism and optimism that has always been one of Blackalicious' great strengths to a hard-won cynicism and pragmatism about the nature of capitalism. The Craft's title might lead fans to think it's a bare-bones return to basics, but Blackalicious isn't about to let the move from major to indie narrow its horizons, or keep it from dreaming big.