As hip-hop cliches go, thanking God in the liner notes ranks up there with incarceration, badmouthing music critics, or blaming the soundman. So, it's not surprising when both MC Gift of Gab and DJ/producer Chief Xcel of Blackalicious begin the liner notes on their new album, "Nia," with big ups to the Creator.

But, unlike mainstream or gangsta rap acts who publicize their faith, Blackalicious' thank-you note to the Almighty doesn't come off as a ploy for absolution, mainly because the duo don't have any recidivist tendencies to apologize for. The note is just one example of the group's spiritual slant. "Nia" is full of references to devils, spirits, fate, and destiny from the moment it begins--with an invocation, no less

"My grandfather was a minister and a deacon at a church in the South, so I was raised in a spiritual household," explains Chief Xcel. "The idea of a higher presence has always been there for me. So asking what part spirituality plays in our work is like asking what part oxygen plays in breathing."

Churchgoing rappers? Not exactly. "I don't think anyone can really tell you what your relationship with God should be," says Chief Xcel. "Church goes on inside myself, that's where I have those conversations."

This conversation spills into "Nia." Metaphysical musings on existence, nature, and reincarnation are woven into their breathy crime-noir, straight-up battle tracks. So does pan-African poetry. But throughout, Xcel's partner Gift of Gab plays the universalist preacher, equally adept at crying out like Job on "Shallow Days," simply being like Buddha on "Sleep," and giving props to achievers like Jesse Jackson on "Making Progress."

Blackalicious are members of the Solesides crew, the record label that put out Lyrics Born, Lateef, and DJ Shadow, as part of the first West Coast indie-rap wave in the mid-90s. But the duo waited until 1999, when Solesides regrouped into Quannum Projects, to release new material. They spent a good part of their five-year hiatus stoking their international audience. But they also spent many late nights in their Oakland studio, The Hut, recording over 40 tracks since 1995's Melodica EP.

The 19 tunes that made the cut coolly expand hip-hop's basic blueprint without losing touch with it's necessary "crunk." Chief Xcel's casually brilliant production utilizes the common currency of hip-hop beat science--chunky drum loops, fat, bumpy bass lines, and dirty funk vamps. But Xcel adds touches from across the African diaspora. "Smithzonian Institute of Rhyme," Xcel says, is an attempt to recreate a rhythm from a West African record on the DMX drum machine, and "A2G" is his reinterpretation of a favorite gospel track.

The message is in Gab's lyrics as much as the sounds. While many hip-hoppers revel in the symbols of success, "Deception," a childlike fable about the way "money makes the inner vision crumble," attack MCs that brag about their ability to shop. In "Shallow Days," Gab elevates the usual hip-hoppers' bitch session about the reality of inner-city life: "I won't contribute to genocide/I'd rather try to cultivate the inner side and try to evolve the frustrated ghetto mind." Then he counters his argument with even-handed arguments from the other side: "You gotta keep it real so we can feel where you're coming from/because these streets is ill/so if you're not killing niggas in rhymes then your whole sound is just bubblegum."This shuttling between hardcore and higher ideals produces an album that is alternately humble and boasting, brainy and brawny, restrained and riotous, as if Gab were Superman and Clark Kent rolled into one blessed MC with a passion for the mike and faith in the above.

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