When last seen as a duo in 2002, Chief Xcel and Gift of Gab had just dropped Blazing Arrow, one of the most accomplished hip-hop albums in recent memory. An ambitious and humane collection, filled with eclectic samples, sensitive live instrumentation, and interesting guests (Ben Harper, Gil Scott-Heron), it was just the sort of thing that gets an act kicked to the curb by a major label these days -- unless, perhaps, the act happens to be OutKast.
But Blackalicious has made the step back to indieland with skills and ambition intact on The Craft, one example being the garage-rocking "Powers," which bears more than a passing resemblance to Big Boi and Dre 3000's biggest hit, "Hey Ya," yet bounces on its own merits. "Powers" might even become the "Hey Ya" of 2005. But that long-shot outcome won't be necessary to validate this duo's skill, as Blackalicious earns all the props it needs on The Craft's centerpiece, "The Fall and Rise of Elliott Brown," a towering epic of ghetto redemption -- the sort big-label rappers have forgotten is possible. Here's hoping at least a few are listening.