The Year in Music, Part 6

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Amadou & Mariam/Dimanche á Bamako
Blackalicious/The Craft

So what do the Oakland hip-hop duo of DJ Chief Xcel and MC The Gift of Gab have in common with Amadou & Mariam, a blind husband-and-wife team from Mali? Plenty, in my mind. I’ve been a fan of Blackalicious since I heard a track from their A to G EP on the radio circa 1998, and of Amadou & Mariam since I heard their song “Mon Amour, Mon Cherie” in the Emeryville Tower Records around the same time. Though they work in very different idioms, both are heavily beat-centric and capable of dizzying, ecstatic heights when they’re clicking on all cylinders.

Which is not always. I’ve found Amadou & Mariam’s previous albums vaguely disappointing, I think because their music depends on a peculiar kind of magic to make the simple, repetitive grooves levitate. The magic doesn’t always work — most of the time, but not always — and when it doesn’t, the songs just kind of lie there.

I was hoping that Dimanche á Bamako, produced by genre- and border-hopping reggaephile Manu Chao, would be that great Amadou & Mariam album I’ve been waiting for. And it is tantalizingly close. The stylistic mix of Chao’s continental melange and Amadou & Mariam’s bubbling African stew mostly works, though at times this threatens to turn into a Manu Chao album — not that there’s anything wrong with that. Many of the songs, like “M’Bife,” “Senegal Fast Food,” and “Politic Amagni,” are minor miracles. If it weren’t for a couple of lesser tracks, this would be the Holy Grail. As it is, the search continues; in the meantime, there’s a lot to enjoy on Dimanche á Bamako.

The Craft is the third Blackalicious album, following 2000’s near-masterpiece Nia and 2002’s Blazing Arrow, which was a bit of a letdown. Not awful, just a little too slick and unsure of its direction. I was hoping that Gab and Xcel, as groovy a couple of guys as you’ll find in the Long Plastic Hallway, would bounce back with a winner.

And The Craft is certainly an improvement on its predecessor, leading off with the jaw-dropping one-two punch of “World of Vibrations” and “Supreme People.” The latter has shot up right near the top of my list of favorite hip-hop tracks on the strength of its body-slamming rhythm and sharp lyrics:

Supreme people livin' with their back aligned
Up against the wall cause these days are asinine
Living in a money matrix how cats survive
Some will fade away and wither, others will blast a nine
Kings and queens workin' nine to fives and makin' nothing
Searching for a deeper purpose in life
This can't be life
With all this work this can't be right
With no money in my pocket I just can't see right
I used to try to preach to young 'uns like "Do right, kids"
Nowadays all I can say is "Get it how you live"

Eh, it’s not quite the same without that beat, but never mind. Other highlights include “Powers,” a female-praising anthem laced with electric guitar, and “Lotus Flower,” with guest vocals by George Clinton. Unfortunately, The Craft runs out of steam on what those of us raised in the vinyl age would call the B side. Message songs like “The Fall and Rise of Elliot Brown” and “Black Diamonds and Pearls” are kind of clunky, which is a problem a lot of “conscious” hip-hop artists have — how do you make a serious point without being a drag? Answer: Go back and listen to “Supreme People.” If the music’s right, the message goes down nice and smooth.

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