Twenty years after its release, Blackalicious’ Nia persists as a profound conceptual piece of art where weighty lyrical insights ride smoothly over soulful, rousing soundscapes…
1999 was a momentous year for Blackalicious, the renowned, bombastic hip-hop duo hailing from the Bay Area comprised of rapper Gift of Gab and DJ/producer Chief Xcel. In April of the final year of the millennium, the group released an EP titled A2G. This captivating release contained within it an absolutely jaw-dropping composition entitled “Alphabet Aerobics” that was produced by legendary producer/turntablist Cut Chemist. This tongue-twisting rap escapade was a dumbfounding showcase of rap prowess wherein Gift of Gab spits bar after accelerated bar where almost every word begins with the same letter of the alphabet. He devotes a few lines to each letter and moves through the alphabet consecutively, increasing the tempo as he goes until he brings it all home with “Yellow back, yak mouth, young ones yaws / Yesterday’s lawn yards sell our yawn / Zig zag zombies, zoomin’ to the zenith / Zero in zen thoughts, overzealous rhyme Zea-lots.” Words fail to give just-due to this remarkable rap feat of strength, and what was clear to anyone who spent time with A2G was that Gift of Gab was one of the most talented emcees in the game, and it was also evident that Blackalicious had so much more to offer. It didn’t take long for this prophetic notion to manifest itself, as soon after the calendar flipped to 2000, Blackalicious released a masterpiece with their debut full-length album, Nia.
While Blackalicious had been at it for some time, releasing their first EP entitled Melodica in 1994, and word about the duos magnanimous talent had spread like wildfires that would later envelop their home state of California, nobody could have predicted the illustriousness of their debut album. Nia, the Swahal word for “purpose,” manifested as a soulful concept album that skillfully blended together jazz, funk, Northern California trip-hop, and old school boom-bap to deeply-affecting, astonishing results. Nia was released in Europe by Mo Wax about six months earlier, and when it hit the states (2.29.00), re-released by Quannum Projects (formerly Soulsides Records), it had a slightly altered track list and was then a fully formed front-to-back classic.
Produced almost entirely by Chief Xcel (except for “Do This My Way” and “Cliff Hanger,” which are produced by Lyrics Born and DJ Shadow, respectively), Nia wasn’t of such outstanding quality because of Gift of Gab’s lyrical prowess of Xcel’s diverse and always striking beats alone, but because it had a true soul to it, an enlightened spirit that persisted throughout the entire album. Nia was socially conscious through and through, an album that took aim at capitalism, phoniness in the rap game, and the many temptations that threaten to sidetrack a person as they journey through life. Harvesting a sage awareness of the ills of the world at the time, and drawing upon his own experiences and pitfalls, Gift of Gab utilizes Nia as a wake up call to young people, and young emcees in particular, who might get caught up in the glamour and glitz and the allure of money and fame.
One of the albums many standout tracks, the piano-driven “Deception,” opens with Gift of Gab crooning “Don’t let money change you,” and what follows serves as a cautionary tale for blossoming emcees, one about the pitfalls of success. “Deception” tells the story of an up-and-comer named Cysco who ultimately lets money and success go to his head. He lost sight of the art amid all the celebrity, and the moral of the story, as Gift of Gab states, is “ that some go (some go) / Why would money make the inner vision crumble? (crumble) /So if you’re blessed with the talent, utilize it to the fullest / Be true to yourself and stay humble.”
A few songs later, in a song entitled “Shallow Days” that acts as the spiritual center of the album and is one of the most positive hip-hop songs you will come across, Gift of Gab responds to a question about why his rhymes aren’t “laced with the gangster touch.” Responding in earnest, and in a manner that speaks to his world view and burgeoning spiritual mindset, Gift of Gab replies: “I said ‘I won’t contribute to genocide / I’d rather try to cultivate the inner side / And try to evolve the frustrated ghetto mind / The devil and his army never been a friend of mine.’” Further exhibiting the uplifting, meaningful nature of the album, the silky smooth “As The World Turns” finds a frustrated Gift of Gab lamenting how “dollar bill done turned the whole world crazy.” It is a cautionary tale, larger in scope than that of “Deception,” where the ills of capitalism throughout the globe are expounded upon with lyrical precision. Ultimately though, “As The World Turns,” as is the case with Nia in aggregate, ends on a hopeful note, one where Gift of Gab finds extreme solace in his family, even those who has passed on and who are now “Angels in the midst / And they’re guiding and watching me every day.”
One, however, should not allow the ever-present positivity and social conscious essence of Nia to be misleading, as the album emphatically bumps. Chief Xcel’s diverse and pulsating soundscapes invigorate the album again and again. Such is the case of the reggaeton-flavored braggadocios banger “You Didn’t Know That Tho,” and the head-nod inducing “The Fabulous Ones,” a song that not only serves as a cocksure introduction to Gift of Gab and Chief Xcel, but features a beat with a feverish momentum and spirit. “Do This My Way” further exhibits Chief Xcel’s range with a pulse reminiscent of a persistent heartbeat that lays the ideal foundation for Gift of Gab to play with tempo and showcase his many divergent rhyme styles.
With Nia, Blackalicious deservingly catapulted to the ranks of underground hip-hop royalty. With assists from fellow Quannum Projects emcees Lateef and Lyrics Born, and even renowned poet Nikki Giovanni (who reads her poem “Ego Tripping (there may be a reason why)” ove a Chief Xcel beat), Nia is a complex, multi-faceted work of art that works on a plethora of levels. It’s intelligent, anti-establishment rap with a conscience that can also get the party started. The themes present in Nia, even twenty years from its conception, resonate deeply in today’s society highlighting just how little has changed in two decades, but also providing the world with the positivity, truths, and spirit to potentially help make that change happen.