Even though hip-hop regularly dominates the Billboard charts, having infiltrated everything from soft-drink commercials to philately, the most telling sign that it has a stronghold on popular culture is its steadfast reluctance to support artists who divert from the formula of pop success. Anything outside the understood parameters of economic boon -- an area loosely defined by DMX's wild-pack rally cry "What's My Name," Juvenile's salacious "Back That Azz Up" and Q-Tip's sexy hit "Vivrant Thing" -- is considered threatening to the commercial windfall, no matter how many critics laud Prince Paul or how many Grammy awards The Roots take home.
There seems to be popular disdain among consumers for music that isn't, in some way, condescending, vulgar, chauvinistic or macho. The phenomenon is especially hard on new artists. Unless you're a protigi building your brand through numerous cameos (e.g., Beanie Sigel or Ja Rule), you're banished from the pot of gold to fringes populated mostly by indiscriminant bohemians and what the rapper Common charmingly called "coffee-shop chicks and white dudes."
Both Northern California duo Blackalicious and Anti-Pop Consortium, a trio of New York poetry-slam expatriates, have, for several years, forged loyal followings based on their abilities to render hip-hop music without subscribing to any contemporary agenda. Blackalicious' "Nia" and Anti-Pop's "Tragic Epilogue" are the first full-length albums for both groups -- after various EPs and singles -- each of which goes a long way to stretch the perception of what exactly hip-hop music is. Blackalicious delve into the black musical diaspora. Anti-Pop take experimental wordplay to greater heights.
Blackalicious are part of the Quannum collective (formerly SoleSides), a creative coterie whose most well known member is DJ Shadow. Like Shadow's heady instrumental narratives, Blackalicious are desperately original. DJ and producer Chief Xcel creates beats you just haven't heard before, as ripe and juicy as summer blackberries, dripping with soul and sentiment. In Xcel's hands, "Nia" carefully maintains a lineage to the great black music of the late 1960s and '70s. On "If I May," he (with help from Shadow) uses the soulful breaths of a strummed guitar and female voice to evoke emotion out of his melodic beat. "The Fabulous Ones," meanwhile, buoys itself with rumbling, hard-funk bass lines and kick-drums. In fact, if it weren't for that programmed percussive propulsion, most of "Nia's" soundscapes would be indistinguishable from the dusty, decade-old records DJs like to dig up to make their beats.
The lyricist Gift of Gab has an animated voice and arsenal of rhyming cadences that complement Xcel's earthy tones, making Blackalicious sound like a West Coast version of the revered New York duo Gang Starr. On "A to G," Gab plays an alphabet-flipping, freestyle fanatic; he shoots rapid-fire B-boy verses on "Trouble"; and on "As the World Turns," he breaks into charming pseudo-song, ` la Mos Def. What makes Gab so special is his ability to convey a sense of passion and humanity with such sincerity, a sympathetic trait that endears him to audiences as a real person, not some contrived alter ego.
On "Shadow Days," for example, he rhymes: "Time and time a brother asks why the rhyme is not laced with the gangsta touch/I said simply, 'Because I don't live that way ... /I won't contribute to genocide/I'd rather try to cultivate the inside/And try to evolve the frustrated ghetto mind."
The lyrics sound like something that could've come from hip-hop's Afrocentric days, back when De La Soul and the Native Tongues were proliferating a positive purpose. More than anything, Blackalicious reference that period from 1989 to 1993 when DJs, producers and MCs all took pride in the creative process and possessed a holistic sense of purpose about being young and black in America. Had Blackalicious emerged from New York circa 1990, they surely would've been immortalized in the hip-hop canon like Pete Rock & CL Smooth or Main Source -- gods to those who knew.
The Anti-Pop Consortium, on the other hand, could come out at any time -- past, present or future -- and still not be fully appreciated or even understood. On "Tragic Epilogue," the trio adheres to few of the codified rules that dictate today's hip-hop. Instead, they play with divergent rhyme cadences and unconventional arrangements, all over sparse digi-beats resembling something you might create if heavily intoxicated.
High Priest, Beans and M. Sayyid reveal a natural love of language -- how words push against each other, the way cryptic rhymes spill from their mouths. It's an obvious byproduct of their poetry backgrounds and something that drives "Tragic Epilogue" to be quietly affecting. On "Nude Paper," for example, over telegraphlike electrobeats, Beans rocks nonstop rhymes, calling out illusory MCs. Even over such a barren track, and with such cryptic lyricism, he's able to induce a head nod. "Animosity overcompensates for your lack of ideas/Therefore I leave you to yourselves," he condemns, and it's classic B-boy bravado -- just of a higher order than, say, the typical "You're wacker than wack."
The three MCs offer an interesting study in verbal dynamics. Beans is a floating communicator toying with both existential, jazzlike deliveries and Monk-like minimalism. High Priest comes off as the group mathematician. On songs like "Smores," you can imagine him gridding out his words on some sort of matrix before putting them in rhyme form. M. Sayyid's frolicking flows and warm tenor make him the most conventional of the trio, but only in the way you could consider Kool Keith or Divine Styler conventional. It's the intermixing of MCs in various configurations that makes "Tragic Epilogue" so unpredictable from track to track. Even guest MCs like Aceyalone (on "Heatrays") and Pharoahe Monch ("What Am I?") are forced to adapt to the Anti-Pop tempo.
Producer E. Blaize's deliberately lo-fi backdrops -- from the organized digital feedback on "Lift" to the resonant future-funk of "EyeWall" -- underscore the idea that Anti-Pop could be hip-hop's only avant-garde rhyming troupe. (Take this chorus: "Shark infested water/message in a bottle/No man is an island/Individual visual MC/Me I love life.") They thrive on the friction between their supremely imaginative deliveries and the electro-noise-pop E. Blaize concocts on the album's 19 tracks. And they almost seem to take a smug pride in their choice of wordplay, opening the album with "Laundry," the closest thing to a song you'd hear on the radio that Anti-Pop have ever created. Over a simple, rolling bass line, Priest and M. Sayyid spit surefire lyrics on a par with their peers'. It's as if they're saying they could rock over traditional beats and still sound fresh -- they just choose not to.