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Blackalicious
Nia
(Quannum Projects)

San Francisco's underground hip-hop scene has provided plenty of modest delights over the years. While many of their California funk soul brothers took to the streets and swathed themselves in tribe-defining colors, an entire branch of the music clung to old-school styles and beliefs. The microphone didn't matter as much to them as the power of the turntable and the quality of the beats. So, while the N.W.A. crew and their countless imitators were busy shaping gangsta rap (and tore down much of hip-hop's creativity in the process), San Francisco kids -- particularly the Solesides collective -- waxed nostalgic on their turntables.

The first album from Blackalicious (original Solesiders who mutated into the Quannum Projects crew), Nia, comes seven years after the group's first EP. The time between was filled with several singles, compilation appearances, and guest performances on work by pals like DJ Shadow and Lyrics Born. They all pay back on this long, extended work by the duo (Chief Xcel and the Gift of Gab are Blackalicious), which at times is filled with more ideas than they know what to do with. Still, they confront the state of California's infatuation with "genocide" (as Gift of Gab refers to it on one track) and fill in the nihilism with -- little surprise here, considering their San Francisco roots -- peace and love.

Tossing in freestyle jazz, smooth R&B, and funky loops of fury, Blackalicious bookends Nia with "Searching" and "Finding," two cuts of divergent lyrical technique -- their finger-poppin' poetry is unlike the straight-up hip-hop of the rest of the album. The principal theme of a life quest drops from track to track (cultural/racial pride here, brain power there), and they certainly keep the intellect quotient high throughout. But, like DJ Shadow's monumental Endtroducing . . ., Nia isn't so much about what Blackalicious says as it is about what it spins. Chief Xcel coldcuts the disc's 18 songs with a master turntablist's acumen; only on the pieces where rapper Gift of Gab grabs a bigger chunk of time does his skill wane. Gab just isn't up to his partner's speed. He may be Nia's messenger, but ultimately the message is, simply, the music. -- Michael Gallucci

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