Blackalicious' 2002 breakthrough Blazing Arrow made brilliant use of MCA's deep pockets, enlisting everyone from Jurassic 5 to ?uestlove to Gil Scott-Heron for that rarest of hip-hop anomalies, a nearly 75-minute magnum opus that left listeners hungry for more. Since the album's release, MCA has gone out of business, so it's not surprising that 4th Dimensional Rocketships Going Up, the new solo album by Blackalicious rapper The Gift Of Gab, shows signs of belt-tightening. At 46 fat-free minutes, it downsizes Blazing Arrow's eminently justifiable running time, and where Blazing Arrow boasted support from hip-hop's elite, Rocketships limits its roster of guest vocalists to Vursatyl of Portland's underrated Lifesavas. The much-vaunted chemistry between Gab and Blackalicious DJ/producer Chief XCel is absent, but it's been replaced by the similarly potent chemistry between Gab and producers Vitamin D and Jake One, neither of whom should have trouble lining up gigs after their superb work here.
As its prog-rock title suggests, Rocketships doesn't lack ambition; on the contrary, the album's briskness facilitates a heightened sense of economy and a thrilling lyrical denseness. "Up" provides a good example of Rocketships' combination of surgical focus and Herculean ambition. In it, Gab catches a ride with a cabdriver who observes that people in his poverty-stricken Third World homeland would welcome the opportunity to occupy the bottom rung of the U.S. socio-economic ladder. While acknowledging the validity of the cabbie's viewpoint, Gab comments with trademark eloquence that America's prosperity is exactly what makes its economic inequities unforgivable. The song offers an embarrassment of riches: a warm Sly And The Family Stone funk groove, social consciousness, a compelling narrative, gentle humanism, incisive commentary, and righteous outrage married to a hard-won optimism. It's even more remarkable considering that it flies by in less than two minutes.
The rest of the album is much the same. A consummate songwriter with a fluid, musical flow that edges effortlessly into singing, Gab doesn't waste a line or a verse, let alone a song. His economy results in an album that's simultaneously epic and intimate, personal and political, passionate and playful. "Signed a deal with a major, haven't made it yet," Gab raps on "Rat Race," but discriminating hip-hop heads know better. He's made it into the rarefied pantheon of all-time greats, but his triumphs can't yet be measured in SoundScan numbers or platinum records.