As one-half of the legendary Gang Starr, Guru has been working to maintain the lifeblood of hip-hop for over a decade. His “side project,” the Jazzmatazz series, is his way of taking the pulse of other genres of modern black music. Never the groundbreaking, genre-melding project Guru incessantly bills it as (Streetsoul ends with a track proclaiming the CD as “timeless”), the Jazzmatazz series of CDs has been an always entertaining trip through the now sounds in the fields of jazz, soul and hip-hop, with Guru as the tour guide.
Jazzmatazz Streetsoul is the third in the series, and by far the liveliest and most consistent. While the first album, with guest spots by contemporary jazz musicians from the past and the present, was a straightforward, enjoyable attempt at adding different musical backdrops for Guru’s rhymes, the second album broadened the musical scope considerably. The third album picks up at that point, but this time Guru delivers a tighter, more controlled album, one that’s not only an interesting attempt at boundary-crossing but also an accessible, fun hip-hop/soul collection that could and should appeal to mass audiences.
Streetsoul showcases Guru’s classic MC style (self-described as “monotone”) while featuring a lively batch of the freshest R&B singers, including some used often by hip-hop acts these days (Erykah Badu, Macy Gray, Les Nubians), some up-and-coming performers (Kelis, Craig David, Amel Larrieux) and at least one legend (Isaac Hayes). None of the guests slack off, and some put in showstopping appearances that would completely steal the thunder from a less-talented MC; this is especially the case with Angie Stone on the first single “Keep Your Worries” and with Bilal, who adds his subtle, neosoul stylings to the bragfest “Certified.”
The lyrical terrain on Streetsoul is mostly mass audience fare, concentrating on the universal theme of love relationships. Still, Guru also gets across his usual insights into social issues. He’s always right on the mark when it comes to the criminal justice system and the inner-city struggle to get ahead; his perspective in this regard comes through even on a track that at first seems simple and ordinary, like “Hustlin’ Daze,” featuring Donnell Jones and the immediately recognizable production work of Guru’s Gang Starr partner Premier. “Who’s There?,” perhaps the album’s highlight, is a wonderful story-song about poverty and helping others out. Les Nubians’ soulful touch complements Guru’s role as the sensitive narrator; together they’ve created a moving soul-hip-hop fusion.
The biggest ‘raise your fist and protest’ moment comes with the appropriately titled “Lift Your Fist,” featuring the equally appropriate pairing of Guru with The Roots. The two continued this collaboration on the road over the past few months, on the fantastic OkayPlayer tour, featuring these artists and a host of other intelligent, talented hip-hop musicians. All in all, Jazzmatazz Streetsoul is a release that makes you realize how much talent is out there these days, even in the world of mainstream R&B from which some of these singers have arrived. Guru’s status as a hip-hop legend has been cemented through his work with Gang Starr, but his Jazzmatazz albums should get just as much attention. Streetsoul is a varied trip through modern music, one that captures the gifts of the musicians involved and puts them to great use.