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Brooklyn, circa 1990: In that sweet margin of time before the demise of the radical self-righteousness of Public Enemy and the reign of nihilist chic à la NWA, Gang Starr virtually ruled the fleeting niche of thug/wise man. Wasn’t no telling where Guru might go with his flow. In his rhyme book, the profane street parable (hiphop’s version of a standard) was held in equal reverence to the profound sura. It was the fusion of the earthbound (“Gang”) and the ethereal (“Starr”): asphalt metaphysics. And listen, the group’s ranks were just as deep: Guru and the cats he ran withthe ad hoc collection of MCs surrounding the aptly titled DJ Premier, Gang Starr’s only other permanent fixturerolled like a host of ghetto potentates with diplomatic immunity.
Backed by Premier-orchestrated beats that were dense enough to float lead, Gang Starr’s breakthrough LP, 1991’s Step in the Arena, hinted at the greatness to come. But by the time the group followed up with 1992’s Daily Operation, it was all over, the Gang Starr bench scattered to side projects, solo projects, and reunions yet to come. True, Jeru the Damaja was the only member of the extended family to make any real noise post-bust-up, but the twisted, asymmetrical loop Primo hooked up for his “Come Clean” warrants a spot in the sonic archive of ’90’s hiphop production right next to the malevolent funk Dr. Dre crafted for “187” and the RZA’s early Wu-Tang efforts. And Guru, for his part, went diasporan, recruiting French rapper MC Solaar and releasing Jazzmatazz: Volume 1, a deft mélange of hiphop and jazz that stood head and shoulders above previous efforts at blending the two genres.
Five years after their last reunion effort, Premier and Guru return with The Ownerz, whose title ain’t the least bit hyperbolic. Because if anybody has equity in the rhyme industry, it’s these two. Buzz on the avenue had it that the effort lacks the old synergy, but one listen to the 19 tracks that make up this latest effort and it becomes immediately clear that neither of these guys has lost a step. Ain’t a damn thing changed’course, to the artist, that might just be a backhanded compliment. If the measure of a hiphop CD is mad, damn-near apocalyptically tight beats and rhymes that flow like a Harlem fire hydrant in July, then The Ownerz is a release that more than holds its own. But if you’re one of them prickly-skinned purists hoping to see some aesthetic evolution, this disc will leave you ambivalent at best.
Right about now, hiphop’s old school is actually, like, gettin’ old. The pioneers of the genre are pushing the hell out of 50, and listening to the 37-year-old Guru outpace the young dogs is a little like watching a middle-aged George Foreman vanquish light-handed heavyweights a few years back. Guru has never been a pyrotechnic MC, given to delivering fire-burst punch lines. And his flow offers about as much inflection and variation as a dial tone. But like many great musicians, he’s always played to his weaknesses, turning his smoky baritone and deadpan delivery into stylistic hallmarks.
Guru uses that good form to excellent effect on The Ownerz. Over the rotund bass loop of the opening track, “Put Up or Shut Up,” he spits, “Stupid, you know it’s time to sit and think, before we hit the brink/Locker room at a prizefight before we hit the ring.” Augmented by a minimal snare and cymbals, the cut is a wonder of simplicity. A track later, Premier’s languid guitar licks undergird a vintage, Guru-narrated ghetto epic called “Sabotage” that’ll leave you double-checking your locks at night. And on the laid-back, jazz-lilted “Skills” and the eerie, stripped-down “Peace of Mine,” Guru drops jewels meant to silence the slanderous tongues that ever doubted Gang Starr’s longevity. (Dig: “Rappers simply tracin’ flows and chasin’ hoes…/Producers makin’ Tinkerbell beats for them to rhyme on.”) Despite the lackluster title cut and the eulogy that has become the mandatory last track on any hiphop LP, The Ownerz ain’t headed for the discount rack anytime soon.
Still, it’s hard not to feel as if you’ve seen this flick before. In hiphop, self-congratulation has always been the sincerest form of flattery. But given his rank in the pantheon of MCs, Guru’s professions of mastery can’t help but come off as hollow. Case in point: the nut-grabbing intro to “Deadly Habitz,” in which Guru warns, “I be wylin’ sometimes, you know why?/’Cause suckers be thinkin’ that shit is sweet/Niggaz be thinkin’ that rap niggaz ain’t real.” This from a cat who is literally old enough to be Beyoncé’s pops. Gang Starr’s street cred was established way back in the first Bush administration, so Guru’s lyrical grimaces are twice-told tales.
The worst one of them all is the NRA-approved “Who Got Gunz,” on which Guru shares lyrical duties with Fat Joe and M.O.P. and boasts that he rolls with “savage bastards.” If that don’t scare ya, he also threatens, “I’ll trey-eight your meat, faggot, vacate the streets.” Whereas vintage Gang Starr leavened thugism with social observation, this effort is marked by ‘hood myopia. Notice that The Ownerz is littered with plenty more anti-gay rhetoric where that came from and you start to remember what you don’t miss about the old school. Guru’s various claims to “dead your homo-thug network” and “mark every single faggot” are tired echoesespecially coming from a brother with Guru’s standing.
So, yeah, backhanded praise it is: While his peers are worrying about property taxes and prostate exams, Guru is trying hard to shore up his rep, and more power to him. But then again, maybe there’s just no ‘phobe like an old ‘phobe. CP