Music

Gang Starr’s ‘One Of The Best Yet’ Is A Poignant Coda To The Pioneering Group’s Iconic Career

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Posthumous albums can be fickle, finicky things. Hip-hop especially has unfortunately far too many opportunities to get it wrong — see: posthumous releases that diminished the overall quality of output from the likes of The Notorious BIG or Tupac, or even more recently, XXXTentacion. But every so often, a compilation of a rapper’s uncompleted work can be put together that highlights all their best aspects and provides a fitting, poignant capstone to their musical legacy. Gang Starr’s One Of The Best Yet is exactly such an album, giving an emotional, but suitably rugged goodbye to the late Guru, like a firm handshake with a back-pounding hug.

Gang Starr’s legacy is one that stretches so far back in hip-hop that it’d be difficult to pay homage to, even if this album weren’t their first group release in over 16 years. In much the same way 2016’s We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service was both reunion and goodbye for A Tribe Called Quest and erstwhile group member Phife Dawg, One Of The Best Yet faces the dual responsibilities of reconciling rifts and reestablishing musical chemistry and giving a satisfactory sense of closure to the pioneering group’s 30-year career as one of the last standard-bearers of Golden Era hip-hop. Unlike Tribe’s final effort, however, Gang Starr’s DJ Premier faced the work of laying his friend’s memory to rest nearly a decade after his death.

Because the two were never really able to reconcile on record before Guru’s passing, the pervading emotion of One of The Best Yet is one of wistful nostalgia, not only for better times between the two principals of the iconic duo, but also for hip-hop itself. Even before 2010, rappers Guru’s age lamented the evolution of rap music beyond the parameters they’d painstakingly set for it throughout the early ’90s and even into the 2000s. The genre now is nearly unrecognizable to longtime adherents, which makes Guru’s previously vaulted rhymes ring something like modern — what’s a more evergreen sentiment to hip-hop than “Things Done Changed?”

However, it seems the more they do so, the more they also remain the same. The electric tension that wove through Guru’s ice-cold rhymes and Premier’s concrete-hard beats is more intact than ever, even if those two elements were combined later on. Premier still scratches in those vocal samples throughout the “hooks” on his 8-bar, jazz-interpolating loops and if you so happen to be listening with little ears present, he still bleeps out the rappers’ swears with cleverly-placed sound effects on the clean versions. Guru’s rhymes range, as usual, from the didactic on songs like “So Many Rappers” and “Business Or Art” to the highly conceptual, such as on the Q-Tip featuring “Hit Man,” where he becomes a metaphorical assassin with raps, buttressed by Tip’s hilarious vocal gun shot imitations on the song’s hook.

And, lest the proceedings devolve into stodgy, old-man cloud waving, the presence of modern-day stewards of rhymes-first rap music J. Cole, Nitty Scott, Royce Da 5’9, and Talib Kweli highlight the threads the bond the past to the present. That Guru’s son, Keith Casim Jr., makes periodic appearances to speak to his father’s memory further underlines the ways history informs the now, bringing even more life to the 16-song collection. And although paying respect to the beloved departed can occasionally get a little mawkish — Royce delivers a particularly cringe-y, TMI bar about having Guru’s ashes present while recording his verse — with the question “What would Guru do?” guiding the creative process, there’s more titled-chin menace from the likes of frequent Gang Starr collaborators M.O.P. and Freddie Foxxx than weepy waxing on about how much every misses Guru.

There’s something comforting about partaking in one the last vestiges of Golden Era hip-hop. It’s a bygone time, but its impact remains and is still felt in releases throughout the spectrum hip-hop, however dimly. Guru’s intricate wordplay and wise, old-head aura may seem more evident in the positions of rappers like J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar, but there’s also a glimmer of it in DaBaby’s deceptively keen knucklehead approach or even in the way Young Thug cultivates young rappers around himself, giving them game to keep them out of the streets. It’s for reasons like these that the legacy of Gang Starr may very well live forever in rap — but it’s nice to have one last hurrah to remember them by, too.

One Of The Best Yet is out now via TTT/Gang Starr Enterprises, LLC. Get it here.

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