A favorite question in hiphop is “Who is the greatest super-producer?” Before the advent of Wu-Tang and the ultra-prolific RZA, the debate was between the beloved DJ Premier and the legendary “chocolate boy wonder,” Pete Rock. Rock’s solo debut, Soul Survivor, doesn’t return him to either of the top two spots, but it does try to establish him as something else: a well-rounded artist. The self-proclaimed Soul Brother No. 1 was ad-libbing nonsense over his beats long before Puffy forgot how to stop, but his awkward lyrical appearances were few and widely regarded as comical. Fortunately for this effort, Rock has grown out of his unintentionally offbeat flow and added some inflection to his nasal monotone. Though his rhymes remain simplistic, his delivery is steady, and his dedication to hiphop is made clear through lines like, “I’m the illest soldier who represents the culture/Dignified by words like fresh, fly, and ultra.” He holds his own against hungry new jacks Inspectah Deck and Kurupt on the single “Tru Master,” and actually outshines ferocious old-timers Large Professor and Kool G. Rap on the nostalgic “Truly Yours 98.” However, these moments are vastly outnumbered by the occasions—as on “Strange Fruit”—in which Rock raps in the shadow of much better vocalists such as Method Man, Tragedy Khadafi, Cappadonna, and Sticky Fingaz. Owing possibly to his middling verbal skill, only one cut out of 16 features him alone. Altogether there are 27 guest appearances. As usual, Rock’s tracks are up to par, and the cameos are excellent, but sadly the album proves that even at No. 3, Pete Rock is a better producer than an MC.

—Neil Drumming