music reviews by Daniel Haven
A look at some influential hip-hop releases.

This first major label release from L.A.’s Blackalicious is a gem. Hardcore hiphoppers will miss out if they’re put off by the glitzy production and the absence of a ‘parental advisory’ sticker. Blazing Arrow is an uplifting musical experience. Lots of soulful hooks that’ll stick in your brain, and some truly inspiring mind-expanding rhymes. Meditation and ecological consciousness are recurring themes. Most of the tracks are true ‘songs’, with a few experimental excursions. Guests include Gil Scott-Heron, an original soul-poet from the 70’s, Jurassic 5 and spoken word artist Saul Williams, whose contribution on “Release” provides a lyrical highlight. Blackalicious’ sound exudes positive and natural friendliness. Through this album they have positioned themselves alongside Talib Kweli in the forefront of spiritual hiphop.
 Phrenology (MCA
 An enormously ambitious work, this CD is impossible to describe. To call Phrenology eclectic does not even begin to describe the variety of moods and musical styles that Philadelphia’s Roots present. The rhymes leap and dance from hard-hitting and militant to sensitive and intensely personal; from romantic and sexy to the abstract and cosmic. The album contains radio hits like “Break you off” and “The Seed”, street-tough stripped down hip-hop “Rock you”, straight punk rock “!!!!!!!”, and improvisational adventures into ambient, drum n’ bass, jazz and the avant garde on “Water” and “Something In The Way Of Things”, featuring legendary poet Amiri Baraka. Long time collaborator Jill Scott lends her sweet voice to “Complexity”. Phrenology is a huge album that is hard to grasp. Overflowing with an urgent creativity, it reveals its musical riches through repeated listenings.
 Jurrasic 5
 Power in Numbers (Interscope)

 When L.A.’s Jurassic 5 came on the scene about seven years ago, they were seen as retro and funny; lovable like early De La Soul. On Power in Numbers, their second album, Jurassic 5 have expanded their musical pallet with a harder edge. J5’s four MC ensemble rap is a rare treat these days; check out the hit “What’s Golden”. In Chali 2na they have one of the most recognizable voices in hiphop. Denser and more serious than their delightfully light laugh-a-minute debut Quality Control, Power in Numbers is a good album, with a couple of dull songs dragging it down just a bit. The lyrics are varied, political, spiritual, and at times reflective and personal, with some fascinating narratives, “Remember His Name” and expressions of male vulnerability and sensitivity, “This Line”. J5 with their (relatively) clean middle-class image, stand in contrast to the “gangstas” and pretenders who dominate hiphop. Gaining mass recognition in today’s environment is tough, but music this fresh and intelligent deserves to be heard. And the jazzy flute loops on “If You Only Knew” is not to be missed!
 Fantastic Damage (Def Jux)

 New York City’s El-P is best known for his production work with Company Flow and Cannibal Ox. He has his own original and recognizable sound. He alternates space and density, with sweeping noise and symphonic bursts producing a cinematic totality; like a soundtrack to a futuristic hiphop horror movie. El-P’s rap is all emotion, with almost no rhyme or rhythm. The stream-of-consciousness delivery is a relentless, breathless expression of weariness, anger and despair. The stories are surreal and sad—the characters obscured in a chemical haze. A few rays of tenderness shine through, though, giving some glimmer of hope to this very dark CD. This is not easy listening. El-P’s music is uncompromising, hard hitting and offers no cute soul-pop overtures to commercial crossover. It’s fiercely independent and not for the fainthearted. A couple of tracks may prove offensive to some. It requires commitment and courage to enter El-P’s world. If you are ready, check out this intense album. It will shake you up.
 People under the Stairs
 O.S.T. (PUTS records)

 L.A.’s People under the Stairs’ latest release is thoroughly enjoyable. The album is a journal of the lives of two regular fellows, who like to get high on what they call ‘musical dope’. They sit around in their crib cluttered with crates of old vinyl LP’s, and with a turntable and sampler they churn out new beats round the clock seven days a week, as mothers and girlfriends complain that they aren’t making any money. The words are easy to follow as they rap about typical days and having a good time at parties, but mostly it’s about making music. You get the feeling that these are really nice guys! O.S.T. is a fly-on-the-wall view of a generation. There are no inflated egos here, no promises of immortality or revolution. People under the Stairs will put a smile on your face by telling us about their lives.