Every hip-hop album is a battle for hip-hop’s soul. Whether the rap is all about “takin’ it back to the old school” or “hittin’ you with new shit”, whether the MCs involved are more interested in uplifting the community or cleaning out their closet or telling what it’s like on these streets, whether the beats are organic or electronic or original or sampled or funky or absolutely sick, the subtext (and the majority of the text itself) of every record is: THIS IS HIP-HOP THE WAY IT’S SUPPOSED TO BE.
Gang Starr‘s first album dropped in 1989, around the same time I was working with young men who indoctrinated me into becoming a hip-hop head — they all declared that No More Mr. Nice Guy was real hip-hop, and I heard why they’d think that: Guru’s rapping was neither nimble nor fun, but it felt intense and edgy in that post-Nation of Millions landscape, especially when it went with DJ Premier’s fresh jazzy beats. I never really got Gang Starr, but I respected them, because it was clear that there was something about the way they worked together that felt real and true. And when Step Into the Arena and Daily Operation hit the streets, they hit ’em hard, sounding nothing like anyone else out there. And if Gang Starr wasn’t actually loved — well, we all know it’s better to be admired than loved, right?
Thus was the Gang Starr brand established, and each one of the group’s records has been solid marketing for that brand. These are some disciplined brothers; nothing messes with the brand. When Guru wanted to do his own thing, he did it under his own name, and thus the Jazzmatazz records were born, as well as a much less successful solo record called Baldhead Slick and da Click. (Ouch.) And Premier, of course, is one of the most famous DJs in the world, and seems to pop up on every other rap record for one or two downtempo crystalline tracks that take us back to 1989 or 1991, but not in a bad boring “takin’ it back to the old school” way, but rather in a “this sounds really good, maybe it’s the new style, oh snap it’s Primo, hahaha, shoulda known” sort of way.
But when the two get together to make Gang Starr records, the brand is intact: quiet intensity in both word and rhythm. And The Ownerz trades in this brand marketing by sticking to the formula almost exclusively on every single track. It’s a fine and admirable strategy, and it makes this a fine and admirable album, especially for a group whose first album came out 14 years ago. It’s not an especially fun listen overall, nor is it surprising in the least, but it is exactly what Guru describes it: “new product from a known team”.
We start off with the two of them discussing how crazy the world is today: “Niggaz is bonded in darkness, man” and “You gotta come with the light, man, it’s that time” and “It’s mad crazy for the babies right now”. The idea is, of course, that That’s the major note sounded in most of these songs: Gang Starr, We ARE Hip-Hop! Often, this comes in the form of Guru talking about his crew’s place in rap history. He measures himself up agains the greats of the industry and does not find himself wanting: “I’m a legend to you / Like L.L., Rakim, Ice-T and them niggaz / Like Cube, Snoop and Dre / I’m-a be seein’ them figures.” Some people love Guru’s flow, and some hate on it (his freestyled line about “Lemonade was a popular drink, and it still is”, developed to rhyme with “Bruce Willis”, is still infamous in rap-geek circles), but I’ve never really heard anyone say they love it. He is someone to be enjoyed and admired, but he doesn’t exactly trade on charisma or off-the-wall lyrical jaw-drop. But he doesn’t mind if you don’t love him: “It don’t matter, you don’t have to be likin’ me, man / Keep playin’, you’ll be layin’ there right where you stand.”
The Ownerz seems to be at peace with this notion. They are not insecure children, fiending around for anything as petty and base as Being Beloved. Rather, they diss all suckers (“All I got is a lot of bad news for y’all / You’re gonna need more than a lot of tattoos on y’all”) and talk shit like they’re gangsters (“You know me boy / You owe me boy / You wanna end up in my trunk dyin’ slowly boy?”) and demand the proper reverence (“Yo I’m the Jerry Rice to this / Much too nice to quit / And just so you know / We never liked you, kid”). At no point does anyone brag about driving an Escalade, and no one pops Cris in da club, and the beats are the same high-quality muted classy affairs they always are on a Gang Starr record. In fact, the only way that you would know that this record came out in 2003 rather than 1993 is a devastating slam on “snitch” “pranksta” 50 Cent.
There are many guest appearances here, and they are mostly okay; I really like the way H.Stax and NYG’z rep on “Same Team, No Games” before Guru comes in batting third, and Jadakiss does pretty well for himself on “Rite Where U Stand.” I don’t really see what Fat Joe brings to the table, nor am I very impressed by Snoop Dogg’s phoned-in drawl on “In This Life . . .” Overall, these guest appearances do nothing more than they always do: pretend to add an underground flavor where there really isn’t one. But none of them threaten the brand, except when a newcomer named Smiley bids fair to steal the whole album on the one-minute snippet called “Werdz From the Ghetto Child”. I’m kind of surprised that noted marketing experts like Guru and Primo let this one slip through the cracks, as it’s a mad freestyle that has nothing to do with quiet intensity and everything to do with nihilistic genius. But maybe it’s there as kind of a “memo to self: flip the script sometimes and get Crazy Stoopid like this kid Smiley” deal, in which case it’s all good.
There are a few tracks here that stand out from the regular “we’re real and you’re not, therefore we will blast you” template, but they fit right into the “the world is crazy, we gotta elevate the race” template. “Riot Akt” weds its elegiac exhausted horn-flavored backdrop to some cutting lyrics: “So realize what it is to be oppressed and afflicted / Subjected to sick shit / Knowin’ others live different / Fuck that, the street’s about to blow again”. This is a nice Marxist alienation-theory monologue with strong Black Panther arguments against the US-as-it-is paradigm, and it hasn’t been heard since Brand Nubian fragmented, and it’s refreshingly dope too. (Okay, sure, they use “Let’s bring the power to the people” a couple too many times. But it’s still dope.)
And then there are the out-liers, the stuff that gives me hope that maybe Guru and Premier are willing to mess with the brand a little bit in the future. “Nice Girl, Wrong Place” is a weird little ode to a stripper (and perhaps part-time prostitute) whom Guru thinks will go far in life, not just because she’s got a great ass and juicy lips, but because she’s putting herself through college and has the eye of the tiger. And “Eulogy” is an elegy for all the rappers and family members who have died, those who have fallen on the field of battle; the floaty sad track undergirding the list of everyone who Guru expects to meet in Valhalla. (Typical, though, that this downer is the ending of a Gang Starr record.)
I guess I’m just really ambiguous about where this stands in today’s hip-hop world. Don’t get me wrong; it sounds great, everyone’s on point, etc. It’s not really a pleasure to listen to, because of the lack of fun (except for the filthy misogynistic anonymous freestyle called “(Hiney)”, probably by H.Stax as far as I can tell, but I wouldn’t own up to this one either, except that it’s kind of funny at the same time that it’s being completely evil), but it does rep the Gang Starr brand in a perfect way, and that’s the whole point here. Nothing will make you drop your jaw, but nothing will make you clutch your spleen in agony either. It’s certainly something to admire the hell out of . . . but it’s awfully hard to love. On the other hand, who needs to be loved? Isn’t respect what it’s all about?