MCA - 2002 - 4 stars - 71 minutes
Fans of rap sub-genres already know about backpacker hip-hop. To the uninitated, the backpacker scene is a student-friendly rap style, where thoughtful lyrics are married to spare, jazz-influenced beats. Its origins are in the New York Daisy Age movement of A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul, and though it still has a number of East Coast exponents, (most notably The Roots), its power-base is now in San Francisco.
At its best, backpacker is as good as hip-hop gets. At its worst, the sound is stodgy and indigestible, the lyrics po-faced and worthy. 'NIA', the first Blackalicious album, was as dreary as afternoon tea in a Midlands hotel, as unexciting as the German national football team. In short, it was a yawnfest. I returned it to the shop days after buying it.
But backpacker hip-hop got an injection of life (from LA of all places) when Jurassic 5 re-introduced Daisy Age playfulness and melody to the sound, scoring two worldwide smashes in the process.
This catchiness is obviously, em, catching, as 'Broken Arrow' is a far better effort than the band's debut, blending lyrical consciousness and positively with a pleasing variation in musical style. The host of quality guests from rap pioneer Gil Scott Heron to Rage Against The Machine's Zack De La Rocha rounds off the package nicely.
'Sky Is Falling' builds its nagging keyboard riff into a symphonic breakdown with a nicely offset half-sung, half-rapped female vocal, while the classic rumble of Gil Scott Heron brings 'First In Flight' up to another level.
The styles range from party hip-hop on '4000 Miles' and 'Just What Can Happen', to superior R'n'B on 'It's Going Down' to a passable Sly Stone soundalike on 'Make You Feel That Way'.
The album's centrepiece is the slightly self-conscious 'Release', where Saul Williams proves once more that the gap between poetry and hip-hop is still narrowing. With 'Blazing Arrow', Blackalicious finally catch fire and hit the target.
Tracklisting: Bow And Fire (Introduction) - Blazing Arrow - Sky Is Falling - First In Flight - Green Light Now Begin - 4000 Miles - Nowhere Fast - Paragraph President - It's Going Down - Make You Feel That Way - Brainwashers - Chemical Calisthenics - Aural Pleasure - Passion - Purest Love - Release - Day One - Just What Can Happen