Music Review – Gang Starr: One of the Best Yet

One of the Best Yet is the seventh and likely final album from rap group Gang Starr, who were one of the best (see what I did there) second tier acts of the 90s.  And by second tier I’m talking commercially, not talent wise.  DJ Premier is one of the greatest hip hop producers of all time (he’s on my personal Mount Rushmore along with Pete Rock, Dr. Dre, and Rick Rubin) and Guru was always one of the better MCs out there.  They just never really broke through in terms of album sales or pop culture recognition with only one gold album to their name, 1998’s Moment of Truth, which also was their highest charting album topping out at 6th on the US charts.  I remember them largely as a group that a lot of people called underrated but a lot fewer people actually spent money on.  They had several singles that did well and their best stuff stands up against anything out there both during their heyday and even now.  Their positioning in the grand scheme of music lore is an unfortunate testament to how hip hop is still marginalized as a music genre, though.  While their equivalents in rock or pop music still get constant airplay on multiple stations, Gang Starr unfortunately has been tucked in a corner rarely to be brought back out.

Chuck D of Public Enemy has been very vocal about the way that rap music gets relegated to the dustbin in short order once the next wave of hot artists emerge, and he’s 100 percent right.  Groups from the 80s and 90s are barely heard from now, even acts that are still touring and making music.  Unlike pop and rock music there is no concerted effort to keep those artists and their work in the public sphere unless someone who’s hot today makes a choice to bring one of them in on a project. And even then response is often ‘who’s that guy?’ LL Cool J was one of top rappers in the game for a solid decade, but at 52 is considered a relic; when performing on New Year’s Eve this past December he and those of us who were around for his rap heyday were hit with ‘he was a rapper?’ because he’s known now mostly for being on NCIS: LA.   Meanwhile the Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney, all over 20 years senior are still doing stadium tours and are inescapable from your ears as some of their songs that are almost as old as LL are still in heavy rotation all across satellite radio.  It’s erasure pure and simple, and if it can relegate one time pop culture icons like LL and Will Smith and Queen Latifah to being known more their acting careers imagine what happens to groups that didn’t expand their reach beyond hip hop fans.  You know, like Gang Starr.  (This obviously warrants a whole separate piece so yes that will be coming eventually).

Which bring us to 2019.  Guru fell into a coma in February of 2010 and died on April 9 of that year, leaving behind a bunch of unused vocals sitting on Premier’s shelf that he would dust off to use for this album.  Now when I heard about this project I was both intrigued and skeptical, because while I was a Gang Starr fan when they were rolling posthumous albums tend to be not very good.  Either you get some stuff out of the vault that the artist never wanted released in the first place or you get some slapped together work that sounds like a bad mishmash of them plus whoever else was brought on for fake duets and collaborations.  I remember Born Again, the abomination that was Notorious B.I.G.’s post death album in 1999 (and I just now found out that there are two more after that.  Good grief), and I absolutely did not want a reprise of that.  So I didn’t jump on right away and waited a while to hear what people had to say.  But largely because of the situation I described with how the music gets buried, I didn’t hear anything.  So a few days ago I just took the plunge and listened to it all myself.

So what do I think?  First off, the worries about it being a slapped together nonsensical kind of thing were totally unfounded.  Premier showed once again how he’s one of the best ever to do it by seamlessly blending Guru’s vocals with both the beats he produced and the guest artists who were featured throughout.  And unlike those B.I.G. albums he mainly stuck with people that have done songs with them before like MOP, Big Shug, Freddie Foxx, and Jeru the Damaja.  And when some newer collaborators like J. Cole and Royce da 5’9″ come you can’t tell the difference.  It ends up being a double bonus because having all those guests (8 out of the 11 full songs have someone featured) makes up for what in my opinion was Guru’s big flaw as a rapper.  As unique as his monotone delivery was after several songs in a row it could get, well, monotonous.  A few solo cuts with the rest being duets or posse cuts was something they probably should have done more during their run.  But anyhow, this album has been a joy to listen to.  My favorite cut is Family and Loyalty which features J. Cole and which I would put up with any of their classic cuts from previous albums.  Other ones that stand out for me are What’s Real with Royce, and Lights Out with MOP.  But the whole album is a good listen and there aren’t any songs that will make you reach for the skip button.  The whole thing runs 37 minutes so it’s perfect for a car ride if you’re going somewhere.

If you’re a fan of Gang Starr or just 90s era New York style rap then this is right up your alley.  As someone who’s been mostly out on current era rap music this chance to go back to my wheelhouse was a real gift.  Thank you Premier and RIP to Guru.  And to anyone who might be interested in some previous work of theirs, I recommend Step in the Arena, Who’s Gonna Take the Weight, Code of the Streets, Mass Appeal, Dwyck, and Take it Personal.  That’s a good place to start and you can branch out from there.  So do listen and do enjoy One of the Best from Gang Starr.

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