After recording a string of singles and EPs stretching back to 1994, the Blackalicious duo finally released their full-length debut, NIA, in early 2000. It's an album that stakes the claim of Chief Xcel and Gift of Gab as not only the best pair of rappers in the underground, but also the best pair of producers. As could be expected from an urban-underground crew, Blackalicious look back to earthy jazz-funk, rare-groove, and sampladelic old-school rap for their sound. Still, the productions on tracks like the great opening bout "The Fabulous Ones," "Do This My Way," and the tongue-twisting alphabet song "A to G" are much rawer and deeper — and just plain better — than most any underground-rap crew could manage. And as good as these tracks are, the raps are even better. Chief Xcel and Gift of Gab stay deep in the groove, switching between straight-ahead solo rhyming, sing-speak vocals, and one-two choruses with almost as many rapping styles as there are tracks. There's just a little too much material here — 19 tracks spread across 74 minutes — but NIA is an excellent tribute to the growing vitality of the rap underground.
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