[4 June 2007]
There’s a really cool record store in my city that periodically offers great prices on used CDs. It’s a crap shoot, as the selection and prices vary, so you never know what, if anything, you’ll find, but if you show up on the right day, it’s like hitting the musical lottery. Instead of a multi-million dollar jackpot, you might find a CD that’s been out of print for years, or an equally rare import or a CD you’ve been looking to collect at the lowest of low prices. For two US dollars, I found the Janet Jackson Rhythm Nation album I needed to complete my Janet collection. I bought Terence Trent D’arby’s Vibrator (almost new CD, banged up CD case) for a mere dollar! And I’m not usually a lucky person.
I generally go into this store with a wanted list of CDs and a limit on how much I’m willing to pay for them. The limit is based on how badly I want the item, possibility of finding it elsewhere, time constraints, relative humidity, blood pressure, etc.—very pseudoscientific—and I apply similar impromptu limits on CDs I didn’t think about or expect to find. This is the part where it almost hurts to type—I’m not sure I’d buy Guru’s Jazzmatazz, Volume Four , even at a dollar ! That’s crazy , right?
I’m not a Guru hater, I promise. Everybody knows Gifted Unlimited Rhymes Universal (GURU) and DJ Premier—together known as Gang Starr—are legendary. When it comes to Guru, specifically as an emcee, can we please put the questions about his skills to rest? Guru’s got skills. Yes, he tends to rhyme in a monotone, even prides himself on it, but it’s his thang , y’all, come on. Complaining about Guru’s straight-faced, unyielding flow is like saying, “Damn it, this India.Arie album is too positive!” or “Man, I didn’t know Shakira’s voice was gonna tremble like that.” Be for real. Birds gotta fly, fish gotta swim—that’s what they do, folks. So you either like Guru as an emcee or you don’t. My argument is that he should still be respected as a lyricist.
Besides everybody knows you can count on Guru for positive, uplifting rhymes. He can get “street” when he wants to crank out a baller-style rap like “Comin’ for Datazz” or “B.Y.S.” (“Bust Your Sh*t”), but, practically speaking, Guru’s one of my go-to emcees whenever I’m defending rap in one of those pointless “Rap is Too Violent” debates (“pointless” because we rarely change each other’s minds). Gang Starr’s “Royalty” and “Here Today, Gone Tomorrow” are regular parts of my defense.
Need evidence for Guru’s skill? Listen to a single verse from one song, “Check the Technique” from Gang Starr’s Step in the Arena . His mic sounds nice, check one:
You puny protozoa, you’re so minute you didn’t know the
Gang has been watchin’ you, but instead of just squashin’ you
I’m scoopin’ you up out of the muck you wallow in
Like a chief chemist, other scientists are followin’
Plannin’ to examine you, on a petrie dish
Stickin’ you and frickin’ you, just a teenie bit
I’m clever, with science, but never relyin’
on false words from cowards who forever be tryin’
Insistin’ they come off, I let ‘em get some off
Then come back wit drum tracks, their ears could get numb off
His mic sounds nice, check two (same verse):
Blockbustin’, like makin’ love, I’ll never stop thrustin’
into your system, so just listen
I’m like a neurosurgeon, operatin’ with a purer version
I write prescriptions, of words that fit in
The dope gets prescribed, as I kick it live
‘Cause it’s more than a style, it’s conceptual genius
My effect on the scene is to project that I mean this
You deadbeat, wait until you see my next feat
I get respect for the rep when I speak, check the technique
If anything, Guru’s underrated. He rhymed “neurosurgeon” with “purer version”, that’s pretty much all I needed to know.
Without the help of DJ Premier’s universally lauded production, Guru has overseen three previous Jazzmatazz projects. It might be hard to believe I’m a fan of the series given the doubt I expressed earlier about buying Volume Four, even for a measly dollar. But I am. I even like the dorky series title, Jazzmatazz . Sounds like a title Steve Urkel might use if he were to produce a hip-hop album (the first single would be “Did I Do That?”, the second would be “Sorry, Miss Winslow”). While it’s debatable whether the series has “successfully” fused hip-hop and jazz into a meaningful “new synthesis”, Jazzmatazz has served several important purposes. For one, it introduced listeners who might be unfamiliar with jazz to a number of the genre’s heavyweights: Roy Ayers, Donald Byrd, Ronnie Jordan, Ramsey Lewis, Lonnie Liston Smith, to name a few. I didn’t grow up with a strong background in jazz; I could toss the big names around, but I couldn’t go beyond that. And if the radio deejay failed to mention the artists and titles in his or her rotation, listening to jazz on the radio was entertaining but unlikely to increase familiarity. Jazz records aren’t like rap records, in the sense that rap artists, unlike instrumentalists, tend to announce their own names, nicknames, and hit songs, often to the point of extreme narcissism and/or listener irritation. Sometimes I’m like, “Okay, I get it. You’re ‘Jigga’. Now pleeeeeeease say something else”.
It’s funny now, but it was frustrating back then, trying to describe a jazz selection I’d heard on the radio to jazz enthusiasts, “It goes ‘squee-do-be-dee-bop’ and ‘squee squee squee’. No, that’s not scatting. It’s an instrumental!” Setting aside legal issues and aesthetics, sampling in rap music came to my rescue. A lot of us learned about jazz (and rock, soul, and funk) from hearing a sample and checking credits in the liner notes (like the sample of Bob James’ “Blue Lick” in Digable Planets’ “Jettin’”, from Blowout Comb) or from the shout outs in a rap song (like when Q-tip goes, “Ron Carter … on the bass” in A Tribe Called Quest’s “Verses from the Abstract”).
The Jazzmatazz series, then, was like a superstore for beginning jazz researchers. Guru loaded up the samples, the snippets, and the collaborations; and he consolidated them on a single disc. We’re accustomed to buying fruit, a hunting rifle, condoms, tires, and detergent at one store. Why not listen to Chaka Khan, Bahamadia, Ramsey Lewis, Mica Paris, and Ini Kamoze at one location as well?
I enjoyed Jazzmatazz for the guests. Some songs showcased artists who were “missing in action”, artists who had attained a degree of popularity, but later faded from the limelight. Hearing these familiar voices, sauntering through my stereo speakers, always made my day. Other voices, perhaps less well-known or making debuts, become new friends. Jazzmatazz, Volume One gave me my first taste of French rap, in general, and MC Solaar, in particular (not to be confused with the Solar who’s producing Volume Four). Moreover, the series satisfied all sorts of “what if” scenarios. I like to imagine how certain collaborations would work, partly because I have too much time on my hands and partly because I think it’s interesting. If you’re at all curious about how Guru might sound alongside Patra (vocals), Reuben Wilson (organ), Kool Keith (vocals), Kenny Garrett (Rhodes), Brian Holt (bass) and DJ Sean-Ski (scratches), then maybe Jazzmatazz, Volume Two was your glass of fine wine.
Jazzmatazz, Volume Four looks good on paper. For familiar voices, there’s Dionne Farris and Caron Wheeler, and their appearances might make you say, “Oh, snap! I was wondering what happened to them.” Dionne Farris is known for her days with Arrested Development, of “Tennessee” and “People Everyday” fame. Later, she went solo, and scored with the cynical love rocker “I Know”. As for Caron Wheeler, who could forget her earthy vocals in “Keep on Movin’” and “Back to Life”? The press copy didn’t include an album cover, so I can only report the guests listed on the CD itself, in addition to Wheeler and Farris: Slum Village, Common, Bob James, Damian Marley, Kem, Vivian Green, Raheem DeVaughn, Bobby Valentino, Ronny Laws, Omar, Shelley Harland, Brownman, Blackalicious, and David Sanborn.
If I seem hesitant to delve into the nuts and bolts of this record … well, I suppose I am. Jazzmatazz, Volume Four is a painful listen, unworthy of a rookie emcee, let alone an artist as revered and generally well-considered as Guru. Admittedly, my experience was marred by the promotional announcements constantly popping up for the duration of the press copy. Over and over, in every song, and never spaced out far enough, Guru keeps saying, “Guru’s Jazzmatazz, Volume Four : ‘The Hip-Hop Jazz Messenger, Back to the Future’. Produced by the Super-producer Solar on 7 Grand Records. Peace.”
Guru’s not a fast talker. So when that promo hits , it can take out most of a verse or an entire chorus. At first, I was amused, but the length of the promo plug, plus the frequency of it, drove me insane. I thought my ears were bleeding. By the time I got to the tenth track of the total 16, I was balled up in the corner of my bedroom, whimpering, “Please! Just make him stop it! Why won’t he stop?!” I mean, really. Promos and press warnings aren’t uncommon, but, um, could you please just shut the %#@! up long enough for me to hear Vivian Green’s singing on “Fine and Free”?
Unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, the plugs couldn’t distract me from the album’s mediocrity, surprisingly on Guru’s end. The rhymes are routine and way too safe, sometimes contradictory, and many times on the verge of dull and occasionally downright wack. Maybe lines like, “I’ll serve a rapper like an ace from Agassi” (“Infinite”) might have been cool back when House of Pain said, “I’ll serve your ass like John McEnroe” on “Jump Around”. Or maybe “I got ‘juice’, as if I was Bishop” (“Living Legend”) was an outtake from previous Jazzmatazz sessions. I’m not even sure what to make of this, from “Fine and Free”: “I’m like James Bond, mixed with Julian Bond”. Sorry, that didn’t quite work for me. Maybe it’s supposed to be fresh, but there’s little here we haven’t already heard, and heard better from others, and from Guru himself.
Weak subject matter, I think, is the culprit. Four volumes into a series called Jazzmatazz , the topics should dig beneath the veneer of jazz “coolness” or jazzy samples. Yet, the album opens with “Cuz I’m Jazzy”, featuring Slum Village. The beat’s nice, as most of them are, but the song’s not about anything other than being “jazzy” (and, predictably, “jazzy” like “Dizzy and Byrd” and “jazzy” like “Jeff”). I will admit, however, that Guru’s verse here is one of the best; it simply deserves to be situated in a better song.
There’s also “Connections”, with Kem, that basically sums up the link between artist and audience over an almost-disco rhythm. The beat, I really dig, but the concept is weak, too easy and too obvious. Similarly, “The Jazz Style”, featuring Omar, works the same way, except with Guru switching things up vocally. I’m serious, it’s not a total monotone here, and it’s kinda cool to hear him try this. Guru gets props for that alone, as well as his spitfire delivery (like Jay-Z’s delivery in “N*gga What, N*gga Who”, or Nas in “Big Things”) in the otherwise insipid “International”, featuring Bobby Valentine, whose talents were squandered on a repetitive, lethargic hook. There’s also the quickened pace of “This is Art”, with Ronny Laws. As for “The Jazz Style”, however, the supremely creative Omar steals the show with his layered vocals and vamps.
Actually, you’ll find this happening a lot on Volume Four —Guru phones in a rhyme and then someone else takes over, either with a better-than-average verse or chorus, or with Solar letting a groove and a musician (like David Sanborn on “Living Legend”) play until the song fades. On “Wait on Me”, Raheem DeVaughn’s singing is awesome; the rest, intended as an ode to a lover, is lackadaisical. The same thing happens with “Follow the Signs”, where vocalist Shelley Harland’s performance is topnotch, while Guru says stuff such as, “Like the IRS, I put a lien on ya”. I guess it could be worse. Things could be as lame as “Kissed the World”, with Caron Wheeler doing her best to make the “Georgie Porgie” theme work. Unfortunately, all of it sounds awkward and ill fitting.
When the guests are better than the host, it sounds like the songs belong to the guests and that they asked Guru to join them in the studio, instead of the other way around. Best example: “State of Clarity”, highlighting Common and Bob James. Common’s delivery is meditative, like he’s vibing to a natural high, hitting his contemplative zone. And it works, too, as Common sounds so comfortable here, you’d think it was his album (Common-matazz, Volume One , anybody?).
When it’s not coolness or jazziness at issue, it’s Guru’s general fly-ness. “Fly Magnetic”, the best track on the disc, is spare and really funky, with Dionne Farris, who sounds determined to do more than sing on the hooks, riffing in the backdrop. Granted, the song really ain’t about sh*t, except it’s Guru the ladies man, Guru the fly guy. But everything falls into place here.
You’d think the lack of overall depth would steer the songs clear of criticizing the ubiquitous “wack emcee”, but that’s not the case. Guru goes after them on the “Summer Breeze”-jacking “Fine and Free”: “I heard you sold your soul for a hundred G’s / That’s why all you can rhyme about is [I think he’s saying ‘pumpin’ keys’ here, but the promo interrupted the line]”. The culture’s suffering, he argues, because everyone’s focused on jewels and cars. All right, fine. But, with few exceptions (“Universal Struggle”, for instance), Volume Four fails to demonstrate the heightened social awareness or musical focus supposedly missing elsewhere. In the same song, Guru was more focused on his “prowess with the ladies”, “See, my voice is like an afrodisiac / When they hear it, they dream about me in the sack”. In “Living Legend”, he says, “I’m a fly dude, chicks like my calm demeanor / I’d rather palm that ass than have to palm this heater”. So, let me get this straight, it’s okay to have those rhymes, but the culture’s “suffering” when someone’s rap involves bling?
[Beginning of Sidebar]
Maybe it’s just me but, lately, rhymes about how other, unidentified rappers are screwing up hip-hop have been coming off less like mere bragging and more like elitist, morally superior rhetoric. It’s like, “You rap about rims on your cars, so not only am I a better rapper than you because I’m rapping about not rapping about rims, but I’m contributing more to the culture and the community than you are.” In actuality, the “substance” of the rhyme suffers. Rapping against cars and jewelry still means you’re rapping about cars and jewelry (which, I’m told, is supposed to be bad), only now you’re delivering the anti-rhyme. What’s up with that?
[End of Sidebar]
But Guru, as we know from his rich catalog, can substantiate his claims and critiques better than most. That’s why it’s disappointing when he doesn’t do so on this release.
In the end, Volume Four offers a handful of solid tunes (“Look to the Sun”, “State of Clarity”, “The Jazz Style”, “Universal Struggle”, “Follow the Signs”) and one stellar song (“Fly Magnetic”). The other ten, like the installment as a whole, don’t live up to the standards of the series.