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Blackalicious 

The Craft (Anti)

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When last seen as a duo in 2002, Chief Xcel and Gift of Gab had just dropped Blazing Arrow, one of the most accomplished hip-hop albums in recent memory. An ambitious and humane collection, filled with eclectic samples, sensitive live instrumentation, and interesting guests (Ben Harper, Gil Scott-Heron), it was just the sort of thing that gets an act kicked to the curb by a major label these days -- unless, perhaps, the act happens to be OutKast.

But Blackalicious has made the step back to indieland with skills and ambition intact on The Craft, one example being the garage-rocking "Powers," which bears more than a passing resemblance to Big Boi and Dre 3000's biggest hit, "Hey Ya," yet is delightful on its own merits. "Powers" might even become the "Hey Ya" of 2005. But that long-shot outcome won't be necessary to validate this duo's skill, as Blackalicious earns all the props it needs on The Craft's centerpiece, "The Fall and Rise of Elliott Brown," a towering epic of ghetto redemption -- the sort big-label rappers have forgotten is possible. Here's hoping at least a few are listening.

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