They fell down the back of the hip-hop couch, did [a]Blackalicious[/a]....

They fell down the back of the hip-hop couch, did [a]Blackalicious[/a].

Their ‘Melodica’ EP was one of the finest of the early Mo’Wax releases, ‘Swan Lake’ a classy cut of old-skool revivalism. And what with DJ Shadow and the Solesides (soon to be Quannum) crew giving them patronage, and James Lavelle hyping them back when that meant something, everything looked set.

But, after four years of relative silence, they’re going to have to restake their claim with all but the most patient of rap trainspotters. In a way, ‘NIA’ is the perfect calling card; a languorous, accessible mope through a series of styles which reflect the most soulful and sensuous sides of hip-hop’s history. Perhaps inevitably, the standout is the DJ Shadow-produced ‘Cliff Hanger’, all Grandmaster Flash beats and spidery violin. But the driving breaks of ‘The Fabulous Ones’ and the retro-funk stabs of ‘Making Progress’ prove that [a]Blackalicious[/a] can convince in any downbeat rap mode, and that they’re more than willing to eschew gangsta platitudes.

What ‘NIA’ lacks is the psychedelic spark of Quannum‘s ‘Spectrum’ or the intensity of the Arsonists‘As The World Burns’ album. For all its switching of sonic moods, this record only engages on one, slightly blunted level, and too often dips into jazzy blandness. It’s just about saved by subtle textures and rich beats, but you can’t help feeling that if DJ Shadow had more of an input, it could’ve been a classic.