In the mid 90's and early 2000, whether going under the name Solesides or Quannum, this crew, consisting of members of Blackalicious, Latyrx and DJ Shadow, couldn't put a foot wrong and without resorting to mindless thug-rap they crafted their own brand of mindfull hip-hop that displayed an unrivaled lyrical dexterity and creativity. All their releases whether solo or collectively involved collaboration and together amassed to a group of artists forging their own way in this game and just getting stronger and stronger by the year. With the massive collaborative release Quannum Spectrum in 1999 and Blackalicious' NIA the following year they seemed to be reaching their creative peak and, in my opinion, have slowly shrunk from those heights ever since. Gift Of Gab's raps became far too conscious of their do-good nature, Lyrics Born's solo releases were almost too aesthetically pleasing and possessed little of the edge he previously exhibited and Lateef The Truth Speaker briefly shone in his Maroons project but then all but disappeared. DJ Shadow kept up his end for as long as he could but then even he had to fall and did so gloriously with The Outsider.
So that said, the thought of Gift Of Gab teaming up with Lateef again for this Mighty Underdogs project more than moistened my palette for a return to form and seeing that is was all taking place on the ever-reliable Def Jux label was further proof of an imminent comeback. Sadly this isn't the case and it really pains me to say that. My criticism of the last two Blackalicious albums, that they are far too riddled with preaching lyrics about spirituality and love, are not my criticisms here and some may argue that I am beng slightly and unfairly hard on the boys. I have been wanting them to toughen up for ages, to spit out the odd swear word and show they are human, so when they finally do, on tracks like Gunfight and Aye I cringe like my dad's trying to be cool. I don't know why but it all sounds slightly forced and fake.
Everything's in place here for a great record. Lateef's flow is as tight as it always used to be and Gab's dexterity and speed with which he delivers his lines is top notch. While not quite matching up to Quannum Spectrum's use of guests, heavyweights like MF Doom and Casual make a richer tapestry - not to mention the DJ Shadow produced UFC Remix. But the inclusion of Chari 2na, Jurassic 5's self proclaimed 'Lyrical Herman Munster,' on War Walk only highlights how this genre has moved on, leaving behind these MC's - whereas an artist like Doom seems as fresh now as he did over a decade ago. So after much agonising deliberation I deduce that the key thing missing on this record is a sense of relevance. Time, and indeed Hip Hop has moved on since their heyday and though there may well never be a couple of MCs quite like Lateef and Gab it's what they rap about here that makes them seem irrelevant. As the album title suggests it's definitely fiction that is being dropped here and their tendency to use obvious narrative concepts as the basis for many of the songs is what makes the record so awkward. Gunfight sees Lateef assume the character of a heat-packin' wild west cowboy, Ill Vacation is a jaunty little holiday song while Science Fiction is, guess what, all set in outer-space and seems to run over what sounds like the Man With Two Brains soundtrack. One of the most puzzling and cringing of these concept tracks is Aye where all the protagonists are lusting after a certain female of rather sluttish tendencies. Not only is the concept of these righteous MC's sniffing round some ho quite curious but it also reminds me of the Latyrx classic Lady Don't Tek No and I am instantly made aware of the gulf that exists between the two songs.
Hands In The Air keeps things simple and for that reason works well, no over-ambitious concepts, just the solid rhymes over simple beats and Laughing At You is a triumph for the same reasons: it stays simple. Victorious is a great way to end the record and one that comes from a retrospective angle as both MCs reflect on a triumphant career. This record is by no means bad but it's impossible to form a critique without comparing it to these guys' previous work and it's at this point that the record falls very short of the mark. This crew and all their affiliates defined an era of hip hop for me and their continued commitment to a different moral path to many artists of the genre has always been inspirational, so it pains me all the more to see them left behind. I am sure they all have a lot more to contribute but they really need to reassess what they're about before the next release.