Special day today. A close friend tells me his wife is pregnant, and I’m excited for him. No worries, no drama. I’ve watched him up close over the years grow into the man he’s become, still growing, still expanding his vision and his reach. He’s earned the peace that comes with this news. He’s ready to be a great father.
Maybe I’m sentimental, but it seems like everything these days is at a kind of crossroads. As though the past has been reviewed, reconciled, it’s lessons learned, and the borders of a new stage lie close by, felt but, yet, unseen. This stage will bring fresh challenges, but for now, luxuriating in the balmy days of May, we approach it fearlessly, undaunted.
It has always been this way. Since the ancient world, May has been a time of transition. In Greece, the temples were cleaned out during May and the moon priestesses took (brief) vows of chastity. It was a devout time of reflection and renewal. The trend still applies today: schools end their yearly terms; couples exchange marriage vows; the planting season begins in earnest in backyard gardens; and the hopeful promise of Spring blooms into Summer’s fire flower.
So perhaps it’s no coincidence that The Gift of Gab released his quiet triumph of a solo album, Fourth Dimensional Rocketships Going Up, at almost this exact time (May 11) five years ago. After nine years in the hip-hop game in which he rose from unknown MC to master status as one half of the Bay Area underground outfit Blackalicious culminating in the electrifying, indispensable epic opus, Blazing Arrow, Tim Parker was ready to take a timeout, review his path and total up the score before setting out afresh. With Blackalicious he made his name as an MC capable of technically dazzling, spit-fire fast flows that astonished with their verbal virtuosity. In “Alphabet Aerobics” he rhymed every letter of the alphabet, quickening the pace with each letter; in its follow-up “Chemical Calisthenics” he rhymed every element in the Periodic Table. But his verses were also amazingly thoughtful, comprehensive and intelligently expressed, taking in family, his spirituality, and his take on key events in his life, large and small.
The latter quality finds the greater expression on …Rocketships…, from start to finish like the man himself: elegant, unassuming, inspiring. Leaving his partner, producer and DJ Chief Xcel, back in the Bay to focus on the third Blackalicious album (2005’s The Craft), Gift of Gab recruited Seattle producers Vitamin D and Jake One for his solo. They create spare soundscapes with deep, deceptively simple grooves out of repeated jazz and soul samples and molasses-thick beats. The sonic equivalent of a jungle cat yawing. On top of these arrangements, Gab seems to summarize his entire life up to that point. In rhymes that alternate between enjoyably clever and honestly moving, he relates his fortunes and lows with equal measure, from his childhood heroes (“Flashback”), his hard-pressed parents (“Stardust”), his diabetes and struggles with alcohol (“Evolution”), his exploits in the rap game (“Rat Race”) to social messages writ large (“Up”) and small (the emotional “In a Minute Doe,” an open letter to his incarcerated nephew). He even permits himself a little well-deserved braggadocio, stating his case on “The Writz,” which cleverly interpolates the classic “Puttin’ on the Ritz” (known to thirtysomethings from the 80s cover by Taco). Despite the heavy-sounding subjects, the flows are delivered with a light touch and a savvy, laid back vibe.
In what may be my favorite track, "Just Because," GOG even states his whole reason for getting in and staying in the difficult rap game. It's a fitting mantra for any endeavor in life: "Not because I got a gold or a platinum plaque, not because the record label may push my date back, not even because this is how I'm earning my paychecks but just because the shit FEELS GOOD."
It’s an album of quiet command and power, never flashy, never self-conscious, entirely honest, generous, and revealing. Most importantly, it never fails to entertain with an easy-does-it, head-nodding feel. It’s the perfect listen for a warm, radiant May evening, sitting in the incandescent twilight, sipping a glass of wine, waiting for the stars to come out. Just like that next looming stage in life, you know they’re soon to come, even though you can’t see them. And you know, for that moment at least, that everything's fine. And may just possibly get better.
THE GIFT OF GAB 4TH DIMENSIONAL ROCKETSHIPS GOING UP, 2004, Quannum Projects