One of the Best Yet (released Nov. 1, 2019)
A year ago, if you told me I’d be reviewing a new Gang Starr album, I’d tell you to stop day drinking and protect your liver.
But time is such a funny thing.
The legendary Gang Starr, collectively producer DJ Premier and the renowned MC Guru, whom we lost in 2010, has long been recognized as pioneering hip-hop collective. But the last decade of their legacy has been fraught with drama.
Heads know the story – the classic boom-bap tracks, the unfortunate mid-’00s split, the infamous letter supposedly written on Guru’s death bed distancing himself from Preemo (and conspiracy theories about DJ Solar’s involvement). It’s the stuff made for a Hulu miniseries.
But the Cold War between Guru and Premier finally began to defrost a few years ago. Solar and Preemo came to a deal to release unheard music from Guru, who apparently fanatically recorded tons of verses a la 2pac.
And with those verses in hand, Premier was ready to give Gang Starr one last shot at glory.
Listen, I was excited as anyone to hear that new Gang Starr music was on the way, but let’s be real – we’ve been here many times before and posthumous releases tend to be a mixed bag at best. Producers are left to cobble together random verses into full songs; tracks not meant to see the light of day are suddenly presented as fine works of art; and, worst of all, legends are often forced to “collaborate” with flavor-of-the-month hitmakers and trendy producers from outside their eras, resulting in horrible styles clashes.
Rest assured, that’s NOT the case for One of the Best Yet. Thanks to Premier’s careful hand, this FEELS like a legit Gang Starr project. No Ty Dolla Sign hooks or Blueface features here.
It’s clear Guru’s bars till pack punch. “Rhymes jog ya mental like your pop dukes ya,” he spits on “Lights Out,” boasting both his trademark wit and wisdom:
After you notice what happened it’ll be too late
Can’t blame no one but yourself for mistakes you make
And some of y’all n****s are like circus monkeys
Livin’ life like worthless junkies
Plottin’ against your fellow man, helpin’ out the devil’s plan
Damn, why can’t I trust my own people?
Guru gleefully embraces his role as elder statesmen throughout the project, especially on most recent single “Bad Name” – “If Big and Pac were still here, some of these weirdos wouldn’t act so cavalier.”
He’s not wrong. While some sensitive listeners might dismiss Guru’s words of wisdom as bitterness, “Bad Name” asks pretty bold questions about whether hip-hop became a victim of its own success.
As with most posthumous projects, there are plenty of guest stars to help pad out the tracks. However, all are necessary ingredients for this recipe and never feel out of place. Q-Tip comes through on “Hit Man,” where Guru transforms into Agent 47 and assassinates the competition over a great Preemo track. Royce da 5’9 continues to prove he’s rap’s MVP on “What’s Real,” dropping a verse that evolves from his usual bully bars to a nice tribute:
While the smoke is in the air, feel like voodoo’s on the floor
‘Cause we got the actual ashes of Guru on the boards
He’s sittin’ right inside an urn in the session
Lookin’ down from Heaven to Gang Starr’s current progression
Earnin’ successes, his legacy get treated like folk themes
Movin’ forward then let his children eat off the proceeds
As critical as I’ve been in recent years of J. Cole’s albums, he always brings his A-game to features, and that continues here with “Family and Loyalty.” Jeru the Damaja keeps that same energy on “From a Distance,” featuring downright heavenly production from the maestro Preem.
As you’d expect, Premier digs deep in the crates for his soundscapes here. Guru and Nitty Scott flirt with each other over the soulful symphony on “Get it Together” – the beat is so good that Ne-Yo’s cameo actually interrupts the flow. It’s certainly not a bad feature, perhaps just awkwardly placed.
The latter half of One of the Best Yet does encounter a few minor hiccups. Both “So Many Rappers” and “Business or Art” covers well-worn ground – the issues of industry politics we’ve heard time and again. Preemo’s constantly evolving beat on the former and Talib Kweli’s feature on the latter keep things afloat though.
Also, at various points on the LP, Guru’s flow sounds oddly stilted – not sure if it’s a result of his health issues or whether his vocals were manipulated to pair better with the beats, but it’s pretty noticeable.
Regardless, One of the Best Yet is an great modern ode to the boom-bap era, proving that even in a time where trap and murky harmonies run the rap world, Gang Starr remains relevant. Legends never die.
Best tracks: “What’s Real,” “From a Distance,” “Family and Loyalty”
4 stars out of 5