Blackalicious: Nia

The plight of P.M. Dawn is sadly indicative of the fate of hip-hop acts who follow their own muse rather than the whims of what's popular. Too hip-hop for alternative radio and too weird for black radio, the group has seen its sales dwindle even as it's continued to experience massive critical acclaim. It would be nice to think that such a fate will evade Blackalicious, but given the blissful, bohemian expansiveness of Nia, the band's sprawling ambition and disregard for commercial trends may forever limit it to cult status. Part of the same California-based collective as DJ Shadow—who produces "Cliff Hanger," a Wyclef Jean-level comic-book narrative set to cheesy, '80s-style electro-funk—Blackalicious maintains a thoughtful, laid-back vibe throughout its defiantly dreamy debut. Whether reveling in simple pleasures and sing-songy, Schoolhouse Rock-style melodies on "Do This My Way" or engaging in alliterative wordplay on "A To G," Blackalicious displays a progressive, almost wholesome worldview that encompasses everything from poetry to jazz to genial criticism of hip-hop commercialism. Blackalicious' iconoclastic charms are best evidenced by the sweet, tender lullaby "Sleep," one of the gentlest hip-hop songs ever recorded, but there's a lot to like about this consistently inventive album. Blackalicious' work will strike some listeners as hopelessly naïve and New Age-ish, but Nia is nevertheless an audacious, uncompromised, enormously promising album by a group with the courage to disregard hip-hop's codes and unwritten rules to create music that is vitally, distinctly its own.

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