I've got a friend who hates Gang Starr's voice box, Guru. Hates his raspy rhymes, hates his slack flow, hates the whole persona. To my friend, I'd like to say, please steer clear of The Ownerz. Because shit hasn't changed.
To everyone who basks in the glory of Gifted Unlimited Rhymes Universal, and his partner, the inimitable DJ Premier, The Ownerz the duo's first album of new studio material since 1998's Moment of Truth is a welcome return to that good stuff Gang Starr has delivered over the years.
It seems bland to write about consistency. There isn't much excitement in a straight line, or waking up and going to work in the morning. And yet, every hip-hop talking head can't stop telling us how darned consistent and steady Guru and Premier are. You'd think they were talking about a pair of housewives on their way to the dry-cleaners in the morning. These men are artists, and fierce ones at that. I don't want to hear about their consistency. I want to hear about their music. And I'll be blunt here: their music is consistent. Each of their six albums ebbs and flows on the same line. But that's not descriptive. They're also fiery, funny, tough-minded, independent, smooth, transcendent, funky and the definition of good music. Not just good rap. Or hip-hop. Just good music.
Now say what you will about Guru, he's not as verbally combustible as Chuck D or as calmly intense as Rakim. What he is, though, is true to an art form that's contaminated with materialism. It's not about how much nicer his rims are than yours. It's about how he's a better storyteller than you are. His voice is a real toss-up. If you're not feeling the sandpaper in his throat, that's cool. But he has a tendency to let you know he's the best a lot. Any classic MC (Ra, Big Daddy Kane, KRS-One) has that tendency to the grandiose, and Guru is no exception.
Premier, whose style is a bass-heavy swirl of samples, jazz loops and dicey scratching, is in characteristically fine form on The Ownerz. Every track is quintessential Premo. No complaints he's simply the most important beat professor of all time.
In the five years they've been gone hip-hop's changed a bit. Early signs of grotesque flamboyance and gaudiness from Sean Combs and his Bad Boy camp turned into a bloated farce of spinning platinum medallions and shaking asses. The Neptunes blip/bass sound has been bastardized by a million no-nothings with a Casio and a drum machine. Nelly's writing cloying anthems. Biggie's crown was grabbed by the audacious Jay-Z. Nas flipped out, released bad music, flipped out again, released some good music and is now in danger of becoming LL Cool J. And 50 Cent, a mediocre spitter with a lisp and bullet holes on his body, is running rap radio. Clearly, we needed this Gang Starr album.
On "Skills," Guru covers familiar ground while DJ Premier's disco ball of a beat slurs its way along a liquor-laced bass line. It's not one of those jump-out-of-your-socks-and-slap-the-baby's-bottom beats. It's just markedly better than what everyone else does.
"Rite Where U Stand" should be that breakthrough that Gang Starr (and their label) have sought for 15 years. A sizzling assist from Jadakiss ("They wanna know why I invest all my money in the haze and in the dope/ Cuz right now I'm currently a slave for Interscope" the hell with hip-hop, that's punk rock), a wobbly guitar chord and a rambunctious piano loop make this one of G.S.'s best singles.
Wah-wah pedals drive "Sabotage," a street narrative familiar to Gang Starr fans. Horns highlight the jazzy "Deadly Habitz." (Quick side note: ending many of your song titles with a "z" is tired.) "Hiney" is the first funny skit since De la Soul's 3 Feet High and Rising. "Same Team, No Games" isn't even a Gang Starr song, but Premier gives some rookies a classic to spit over. The oozy "In This Life" is another even chance. If you can handle the crooning, you'll appreciate Guru and Snoop Dogg's sluggish flow. Snoop and Premo make beautiful music together.
The album's not perfect though. "Capture (Militia Pt. 3 )" is a typically ominous if unnecessary Premier production with a reprise from Gang Starr associates Freddie Foxxx and Big Shug (who apparently only get work when G.S. put a record out).
"Who Got Gunz" is without question the album's worst song. Fat Joe lazily rips off B.I.G. and Guru McGruffs his way through rhymes about pieces and protection. Hip-hop's banshees, M.O.P., provide energy, but this song really has no business on a quality rap record. "Gunz" comes right after one of Guru's best songs, "Peace of Mine." On it, he rhymes "My sense of self, and my mental health/ Is much more powerful, than any hint of wealth/ A lot of niggaz get cash, and collect Mercedes/ But neglect their ladies, and forget their babies." After such thoughtfulness it's disheartening to hear him running his jaw about weapons one track later, but that's part of the contradiction that defines Gang Starr.
They've always existed in that nether world between Cristal-sippers and Dashiki-rockers. Conscience with a pistol. Arrogance with a sense of self. Gutter but glorious. If you hate Gang Starr you're only doing yourself a disservice. Sure, they're consistent. Consistently outstanding.