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Throughout much of the ’90s, Guru functioned as the lesser half of Gang Starr. On the duo’s first recordings, Guru’s measured monotone and fluid lyricism were a perfect match for DJ Premier’s tracks, and cuts like 1991’s “Step in the Arena” and “Who’s Gonna Take the Weight” established Guru as one of the top MCs of his day. Although at the time no one expected Gang Starr to last into the next millennium, it seemed clear that if the group were to have any staying power, Guru, more than Premier, would be the reason. But Gang Starr rolled through the decade powered instead by Premier’s massive percussion and chopped horns. It turns out Guru, whose lyrical talent quickly faded, was wrong when he asserted, in 1994, that “It’s mostly tha voice that gets ya up”—it’s actually mostly tha DJ.
To his credit, Guru, 39, has established himself as that rare elder in an art form that deifies the young. But whatever accolades he has garnered over the years are dwarfed by Premier’s legendary status. From Mos Def to Jay-Z, the “Premier track” is a necessity on any respectable artist’s album. Although second to Dr. Dre in artistic impact, Premier is first for sheer prolificacy. He is at least partially responsible for no fewer than five classic albums and has repeatedly taken men of questionable lyrical ability (remember Group Home?) and made them sound better than they are. As for Guru, well, he was skilled in the old days and has made a few decent cameos recently, but is now basically an average MC associated with a celebrated producer.
Guru must have been hearing talk of his artistic inferiority since 1993. That was the year he put together Guru’s Jazzmatazz, the trump card for critics, like me, who dismiss Guru as irrelevant to Gang Starr’s continued success. Guru’s Jazzmatazz and its successor, Jazzmatazz Vol. 2: The New Reality, are both fine, semi-avant-garde records that bring to bear the considerable talents of jazz artists like Donald Byrd, Freddie Hubbard, and Courtney Pine, as well as folks like Chaka Khan, Kool Keith, and DJ Scratch, to create a jazz/hiphop fusion. Both discs were well-received critically (although not popularly), and even the fact that Guru’s weight was still being carried by other artists doesn’t take away from the albums’ accomplishments. Bringing these folks together was, after all, his idea.
Now, five years later, we are greeted with Streetsoul. Guru has altered his definition of Jazzmatazz for this album—there are but a handful of jazz artists on it. Instead, Guru has plumbed the depths of neo-soul in search of cameos. The result is a Jazzmatazz volume that is less a jazz record than an attempt at soul, as the title implies. But even though Guru has pulled together some of the better-known names in avant-garde R&B and hiphop, he has actually accomplished very little.
Surprisingly, I believe Streetsoul’s failure has more to do with the alleged neo-soul movement than with Guru. Ever since D’Angelo debuted, in 1995, there has been a steady stream of artists who have decried the commercialism of contemporary R&B and supposedly searched for a deeper sound: Amel Larrieux and her group, Groove Theory; Maxwell; Les Nubians; the Jazzyfatnastees. The movement has mined an eclectic group of primary sources: old-school soul, of course, plus jazz and hiphop. And its artists have presented themselves as very much into the craft of music making.
Yet many of these artists have produced mediocre work. Much neo-soul may indeed be less offensive than most contemporary R&B, but for the most part it’s boring. Groove Theory’s album seemed interesting for the first few tracks, but then it quickly became elevator music. Moreover, participants in the movement somehow lost sight of the importance of being able to really sing. What good is a live band when Dru Hill’s Sisqo can blow you off the stage with a few notes? And despite all the talk about art and quality, with the very notable exceptions of D’Angelo and the marvelous Jill Scott, the neo-soul movement has yet to produce a singer with the pure vocal power of, say, K-Ci.
For Streetsoul, Guru has picked all the usual suspects—Larrieux, Macy Gray, Erykah Badu, Les Nubians—as well as rookie neo-soul artists Bilal and Kelis. And, instead of placing their voices over his own airy quasi-jazz tracks, as on previous Jazzmatazz volumes, Guru shares the board with others. The results are, by and large, staid—and serve only to highlight how much Guru needs Premier to make an effective song.
There are two quality cuts on the album—one of them produced by Premier (“Hustlin’ Daze”), the other a track that sounds as if it were produced by Premier (“Keep Your Worries,” produced by DJ Scratch and featuring the underrated Angie Stone on vocals). But the vast majority of Streetsoul is a bad fusion of alternative R&B (OK, I said it) and semisweet hiphop. There are no real surprises here: On “All I Said,” the overhyped Gray’s atonal delivery grates your eardrums into cole slaw. On “Plenty,” Badu sounds like a cheap Billie Holiday knockoff. And on “Night Vision,” Isaac Hayes’ smooth baritone goes woefully underused.
Contentwise, Guru stays away from standard rap themes, preferring to vaguely pontificate about topics like self-reliance and lost love. But in his recent incarnation, Guru hasn’t really been an MC who has touched us with his poetry. Instead, his greatest asset of late has been his uncanny ability not to ruin Premier’s tracks. But with only one Premier-produced song on Streetsoul, Guru lacks the forum to display this talent. On past Jazzmatazz records, the relative strength of Guru’s ensemble served to camouflage his deficiencies. But you can’t replace Chaka Khan with Erykah Badu. Streetsoul should have been the third chapter in Guru’s declaration of artistic independence. But instead of extinguishing the criticism of those who say that today’s Gang Starr is just an aging voice backed by a great producer, Streetsoul pretty much proves it. CP