The members of this Bay Area duo–MC, DJ, and producer Chief Xcel (Xavier Mosley) and full-time MC Gift of Gab (Tim Parker)–became friends in high school in 1987 and have been playing together under the name Blackalicious since 1991, so they undoubtedly felt some pressure when it finally came time to put together their debut full-length, Nia, two years ago. In the early 90s they’d cut a handful of stylish 12-inches, both individually (Xcel’s “Fully Charged on Planet X,” Gab’s “Rhyme Like a Nut!”) and as Blackalicious (“Swan Lake,” the Melodica EP), releasing them on Solesides, a label they’d started with crewmates Lyrics Born, Lateef the Truth Speaker, and DJ Shadow. But Nia (on Quannum, the successor to Solesides) sounds like the work of a group trying too hard to Make a Statement: The music has a cloistered, careful feel, thanks in part to the flute-heavy arrangements, and even the vocals sometimes sound stuffy. Even more unfortunate are the dull Afrocentric spoken-word interludes and a guest appearance from poet Nikki Giovanni, whose contemplative cadences bring the party to a complete halt. Happily, on this spring’s Blazing Arrow (MCA), Blackalicious drop that self-seriousness. The vocals are loose and, on tracks like “Sky Is Falling” and “Paragraph President,” even frisky; behind the boards, Dan the Automator and the Roots’ ?uestlove lend Xcel a hand, producing expansive, sunshiny backing tracks firmly rooted in ear-grabbing early-70s soul and R & B. Like many underground hip-hop albums angling for a crossover audience, Blazing Arrow is crowded with big-name guests–and as usual, not every cameo works. Former Rage Against the Machine singer Zack de la Rocha and performance poet Saul Williams add nothing but extra minutes to the already overlong “Release,” and Ben Harper, who turns up on “Brain Washers,” still can’t sing. But usually it’s good news when Blackalicious invites friends over: on “Chemical Calisthenics” Gab has to set his vocals racing to keep up with Cut Chemist’s speedy scratches, and the thick, swampy voice of Lyrics Born, the third guest on “Release,” is one of the best things about the song. Thursday, July 11, 7:30 PM, Park West, 322 W. Armitage; 773-929-5959 or 312-559-1212.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/B +.