There are easier ways to make a hip-hop living than the one chosen by Chief Xcel and Gift of Gab, the duo behind Blackalicious. These longtime partners, who've been together since the early '90s, have plenty of charisma, and if they employed obvious samples and slung the usual crime rhymes, they'd probably be mainstream stars by now. But if The Craft, their latest for the Anti- imprint, doesn't give off the scent of a chart-topper, the disc is a first-rate forum for their abundant skills. Throughout, the music blends live instrumentation with canny borrowings, and the arrangements often juxtapose the Gabby One's incisive couplets with soulful singing by contributors such as Joy King, whose wailing lifts "World of Vibrations," the striking opener, into the stratosphere. This approach might strike some listeners as old-fashioned, and there's something to that; George Clinton's cameo on the slinky "Lotus Flower" fits right in. On the other hand, the substance at the heart of "Black Diamonds and Pearls," a street tale that ends with a ray of hope, not a jolt from an electric chair, is so retro that it feels positively fresh. The material is rich, even if the men making it aren't.


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