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On the cover of Gang Starr’s fifth offering, Moment of Truth, Guru and DJ Premier stand handcuffed in front of a judge. To the duo’s left is a turntable, and on the judge’s bench sit two microphones. Tight-lipped and stoic, both Premier and Guru are staring deadpan at the judge, apparently awaiting a verdict. The album cover was probably conceived as a response to the legal troubles that have swirled around Guru in the last couple of years. This interpretation is backed by a couple of cuts on the album that seek to address the controversy.
But that isn’t the only court the group is facing. Since 1989’s No More Mr. Nice Guy, Gang Starr has blessed the hiphop world with four straight critically acclaimed works. In almost 10 years, the group has watched hiphop transform from black nationalism to gangsterism and now to unapologetic black capitalism. Most artists have cast their lot with one of hiphop’s many fashionable trends, and their careers have been just as short-lived and unfullfilling. (Remember horrorcore and the Afros?) But throughout each phase, Gang Starr has ignored the flash and pomp and walked away just as it came. This is not to say that Gang Starr hasn’t been influenced by each of hiphop’s transformations. But unlike politically amorphous artists such as Ice Cube and Nas, Gang Starr has always been defined by Premier’s thump-happy tracks and Guru’s monotone. With each album the group has stared down rap’s judiciary and has come away a winner.
But while no group in hiphop has set the consistency bar higher than Gang Starr, it’s been a very long four years since the group’s last album—Premier and Guru’s longest hiatus to date. Successful albums released by rap artists after such a layoff can be counted on one hand. Thus, for Gang Starr, this is indeed the moment of truth. Almost a decade after he began, can Premier still pull together a full album of banging tracks? More important, can Guru, never the greatest of lyricists, still hold his own in an era artistically dominated by literary lyricists like Gza, Black Thought, and the suddenly resurgent Rakim? And with rapdom’s commercial appeal overshadowing its artistic merits, are the members of Gang Starr, hiphop purists to the end, still relevant?
Moment of Truth seeks to provide answers in more ways than it probably has to. Among the whopping 20 cuts, there’s a lot to like on the album—and some to dislike. Foremost among triumphs is an improved Guru. On most cuts, Guru has elevated himself lyrically and is no longer simply an extra bit of noise to embellish Premier’s tracks. Throughout the album he offers his views on his legal troubles, society’s social and economic inequities, New York nationalism, and, as usual, the ever-burgeoning throng of whack MCs.
Once, Guru’s virtually arhythmic flow and helium-filled lyrics simply highlighted how much better a technician Premier was than he. But after four years of watching everyone from Nas to Jeru to O.C. blaze over Premier’s production, Guru has taken notes, and for at least most of the album he shines through Premier’s colossal shadow. The first single, “You Know My Steez,” features him effortlessly flowing over Premier’s pulsing horn riffs: “The horror be when I return with my real people/Words will split wigs, hittin’ like some double Desert Eagles/Sportin’ caps pulled low and baggy slacks/Subtractin’ all the rappers who lack, over Premier’s tracks.”
Equally capable is Guru’s pairing with Inspectah Deck on the cosmological opus “Above the Clouds.” Deck’s verbal explosions on “Cold World,” “Triumph,” and “A Better Tomorrow” have made him the lyricist’s poster boy; it’s easy to see Guru teaming with him in hopes of exploiting Deck’s underground status. A lyrically slumping LL Cool J has done the same with Fat Joe, Mobb Deep’s Prodigy, Method Man, and Redman, among others. But Guru instead uses Deck to challenge himself to elevate to a higher verbological plane.
Yet for all of Guru’s noteworthy improvements, Moment of Truth is, as usual, Premier’s album. As Marley Marl’s greatest pupil, and currently hiphop’s dopest producer, Premier is to production what KRS-ONE is to rhyming. Not only has Premier dominated all of Gang Starr’s albums, but his production for other artists has perhaps been even more extraordinary than his work within the group. The list of phat tracks is long. Consider a few: Biggie’s “Unbelievable,” Nas’ “New York State of Mind,” KRS-ONE’s “MCs Act Like They Don’t Know,” and O.C.’s “It’s My World.”
A master noisologist, Premier took the sound of water dropping, melded it to a grimy drum track and created Jeru’s classic “Come Clean.” In an unparalleled dis by a producer, Premier jacked Junior Mafia’s bourgeois pop hit “Player’s Anthem,” spliced the bassline with cowbells, and repackaged it as a lowdown, ass-shaking track for Jeru’s masterful retort, “Ya Playin’ Yaself.” Only Premier’s befuddling inability to generate a gold record prevent him from supplanting his mentor, Marley Marl, as the greatest ever. And among underground heads, even that argument has been given the sword and Premier has been crowned king.
It’s not hard to see how Premier has managed to repeatedly outshine his partner Guru. To Guru’s credit, he’s never let jealousy split the two. And Moment Of Truth’s best tracks come together when both Premier and Guru are at their highest. The groups’s eclecticism is highlighted by the album’s centerpiece “Royalty.” Premier enlists pop icons K-Ci and JoJo, a pulsing bassline and K-Ci’s Sam Cooke-like wail to forge a masterful track.
But what raises “Royalty” from the depths of being simply a dope party cut is Guru’s egalitarian vision: “Whether you kids be holdin’ on the block all day/Or you be puffin’ lah out in the back hallway/Or whether you be in school or in the library…realize that your essence is divine sun/And let it shine sun as we refine sun/Hey yo, this shit’ll blow your mind son.” For much of its existence, hiphop has been trapped in a permanent scowl. Guru’s optimistic message is beyond uncharacteristic. It almost never happens in an art that seemingly worships the 9- and the 12-gauge.
Though “Royalty” is a great song, Moment of Truth is not a great album, and it fails to ascend to the levels Gang Starr achieved with Daily Operation. The album probably could have done without five or six tracks, and at some point the formula of Premier’s loops and Guru’s monotone begins to make it drag. However, Moment of Truth, is still a good album. It probably will be the best album this year, though that says more about hiphop than about Gang Starr. As plodding as the album becomes as it lurches to its conclusion with uninspired efforts like “She Knowz What She Wantz,” and “The Rep Grows Bigga,” the craftsmanship behind cuts like the bluesy “JFK 2 LAX,” “Work,” and “The Militia,” makes it all worthwhile. Under ordinary circumstances a Gang Starr album is a blessing. In an era in which pop media have crowned Puffy the “king of hiphop” and made Mase a legitimate MC, Moment of Truth, even if slightly flawed, is a gift from the gods.