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The 'gangsta' style has departed. At least it seems that way as the earth shifts under those old Chuck T's of gangsta rap, and more and more hip-hop artists are asserting their right to smile.

As the scowling stance of the nineties gave way, there were Mos Def and Talib Kweli's afrocentric lovefests, Missy and Timbaland tripping on ecstasy, and Jay Z practically begging the hip-hop community for some positive reinforcement on The Blueprint's "Heart of the City (Ain't No Love)." Hell, Dr Dre even had to ask his wife's permission to fake like he's still nasty on The Chronic 2001.

With what is easily one of the most eagerly anticipated hip hop albums of the year, Blackalicious has taken a decidedly non-gangsta stance as they drop a handful of sunlit good times rhymes on Blazing Arrow. With their first major label release, lyricist Gift of Gab and DJ Chief Xcel continue the tradition of positive vibes, social commentary, and intricate turntabalism started with the full-length Nia and EPs that circled among underground heads.

On "Make You Feel That Way," the album's first single, Gift of Gab runs off a rapid-fire list of the moments in life "that give you just the most joyous feeling." It's somewhat corny, yes, but it is a brave stance to take when so many other artists are still intent on maintaining their poker faces. And the laid-back horns are lovely."

Songs like "Chemical Calisthenics" and "Sky is Falling" seem more interested in their own experimental cutting than they are interesting to listen to, but for the most part Blackalicious succeeds when they take an old soul sensibility and scratch it up. The smoothed-out funk of "Green Light: Now Begin" stands out, as does the boastful "It's Going Down."

Fellow Californians Dilated Peoples and members of Jurassic 5 (another notoriously happy crew) join in the revelry. "Aural Pleasure" benefits from a dose of Jaguar Wright's heady soul. Zack de la Rocha, Ben Harper, and Gil Scott-Heron diversify the mix.

"I probably don't fit into the current state or what you consider that to be," acknowledges Gift of Gab on "Purest Love." But his unabashed good humor comes off as fiercely modern. The earth may be crumbling under our feet, but Blackalicious is going down smiling. And we've got an open invitation to songs about "love, happiness, and laughter."

Angela Cravens

Vanessa Carlton


[A&M Records]

"I'm ashamed to say I like this song," my housemate confessed as he passed by the big-screen television, which was playing the video of Vanessa Carlton's hit single, "A Thousand Miles." Indeed, anyone who has heard the tune, which made its debut on teen-cinema masterpiece "Legally Blonde," has to agree that it's a catchy one, complete with string orchestra and piano playing by the young artist herself.

In fact, Carlton's unique classical nuances have been a key factor in distinguishing her from her up-and-coming look-alike Michelle Branch, and have prompted Rolling Stone Magazine and other critics to compare her with the likes of angry diva Fiona Apple and piano mistress Tori Amos. Though some tracks, such as "Rinse," and "Wanted" do reflect strains of these worthy predecessors, Carlton strives to set herself apart with her second album, enigmatically titled Be Not Nobody (a name that reportedly came to her in a dream), which was released Tuesday.

The album, produced by Ron Fair in conjunction with A&M Records, has been a long time coming for Carlton, a small-town Pennsylvania ballet school dropout who worked daily in Hell's Kitchen to scrape by before she was discovered and chosen by Interscope Records to experience the grueling process of making a debut collaboration.

At the ripe old age of 21, Carlton displays both the fruits of her labors and her subsequent maturity which allows her to sing, "if I could fall into the sky/ do you think time would pass me by" ("A Thousand Miles") and "I have wandered far and wide/ for something real/ something to die for." ("Wanted") Carlton's instrumentals are as powerful as Tori's, but do not leave the listener feeling quite as disemboweled or disoriented as Amos's music sometimes tends to do. Her voice possesses the simultaneous sweetness and grit of Jewel, along with the passion, but not the carrion bitterness, of Fiona Apple's empowering wailing. In addition, as if achieving the status of a pop princess with substance is not enough, Carlton even shows that she can take Mick Jagger on with a sultry rendition of his "Paint It Black."

This album is for listeners who enjoy sweet voices and pleasant sounds but desire something other than the vapid, played-out productions of many of Carlton's contemporaries.

Jia H. Jung


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