Bay Area hip-hop duo Blackalicious have been hinting about a follow-up to their 2005 album, The Craft, for the past few years, but it wasn't until early 2014 that the duo announced concrete plans for a new album titled Imani. In a recent interview with Exclaim!, MC Gift of Gab revealed that the new album will be out in April and isn't the only new material on the way: "Imani is volume one — this is a three-volume series."
While details are still shaping up on the future volumes of the trilogy, Gab (a.k.a. Timothy Parker) notes that Imani is more focused on just him and DJ Chief Xcel than previous efforts. Asked if there are many collaborators on the new LP, as there have been on the previous two, he answers that there are "very few."
"We did a song with Zap Mama. She's on the title track, and then of course everybody in our crew — Lyrics Born, Lateef, the LifeSavers — are on there, but we wanted to keep this one light on the guests," Gab says. "We wanted people to get Blackalicious. I think that volume two may be a bit more guest-heavy, but with this one, because it's been so long since we put out a record, we wanted people to get Blackalicious, you know?"
The 10-year break began because Gab and Xcel — partners in music since 1987 — decided to try venturing out on their own.
"Blackalicious never broke up, we just wanted to do things as individuals. I put out three albums as a solo artist, and Xcel did a record over in France and has been working with a soul singer called Ledisi and also has been doing a lot of licensing work. So you know, we've both been busy during this time period; it's just in 2012 we came together like, 'Okay, it's time to go back to the mother ship,' which is Blackalicious.
"I equate working with different artists and doing different projects than the one that you always do to [travel], because it helps you grow. Then when you come back to your city after travelling to these other places, you have this broader perspective of what life is. I think that that's what happened with Blackalicious."
Their reunion in 2012 coincided with Gab's kidney failure, which necessitated a (successful) transplant.
The incident, he says, "is something that's fuelled the album, and fuelled my career — both of our careers! We're coming up to Canada, we're going to Europe after that and Australia after that, and I'm going to be doing dialysis the whole time. The blessing is I've learned that— you know, I started writing rhymes in dialysis! I was writing and I realized, 'Okay, I'm always going to have this talent no matter what. As long as I don't give up on my talent, it's not gone. As long as I'm passionate and able to challenge myself as an artist, this can't stop me!'"
The duo wrote 60 songs together for Imani — "It was a very organic process of writing every day, Xcel shooting me beats every day, being in the studio a lot. It wasn't planned! We kind of just let it grow" — and cut the tracklist down from there.
"We just went to the ones we were feeling the most," Gab explains. "We were like, 'We're gonna do a bunch of songs and then pick the best 14, 15 songs.' What makes them better? Me and X have this theory called the Goose Bump Theory. If a song doesn't give us goose bumps, we won't even finish it. I would say all the songs gave us goose bumps, but it was about which gave us more."
Explaining Imani's sound further, Gab says it's got "a lot of soul, it's got some funk in there... It's a lot of the things you'd expect from a Blackalicious record."
Asked whether any rappers are inspiring him lately, he's enthusiastic: "Definitely. I'm a fan of Homeboy Sandman. Obviously I'm a fan of Kendrick Lamar and Drake, you know. I like what J. Cole is doing, as well. Action Bronson, Joey Bada$$. It's a lot of good rappers out now, in my opinion."
While he's reticent about discussing specifics such as song titles or his favourite moments in the new album — "I don't want to go over too much before people have heard the record. I want people to be the judge of that" — he mentions that they're already hard at work again.
"We've already started working on volume two. I don't want to give away too much, but we've started working on that."
The duo will play six Canadian dates between now and April, meaning fans may get a chance to hear the new songs early. Find those dates below, including a show in Victoria tonight (January 14), followed by a SoundCloud compilation of the duo's self-compiled greatest hits.
UPDATE: The original version of this article noted the album series was called "Emoni"; however, the group have since revealed the series will be going as "Imani." The first volume in the series will arrive on August 14.
01/14 Victoria, BC - Sugar Nightclub
01/15 Whistler, BC - Garibaldi Lift Company
01/16 Winnipeg, MB - Pyramid Cabaret
01/17 Saskatoon, SK - Amigos
01/18 Calgary, AB - Commonwealth
01/20 Edmonton, AB - Starlite Room