On "ALONGWAYTOGO," the second track from Gang Starr's new album, "Hard to Earn" (Chrysalis), rapper Guru draws a line in the sand between the "counterfeit" and the "legit," and challenges the listener, "If you don't know what you're doing, how the hell can you be real?" He goes on to explain that being real means walking the streets with a pistol in your belt and no bodyguards, ready to rumble when you don't get your "props."
What he never bothers to explain is why this macho "Shaft" fantasy is more real than earning a business degree at Morehouse College and becoming a jazz fan (which is what Guru did in his earlier life as Keith Elam). He doesn't justify how he can recommend this lifestyle on one track and then point out on another that "tons of guns bring nothing but death." Nor does he explain how the effort to live up to the media stereotype of the ghetto gangster somehow makes him more honest, more "real," than the competition.
In their pursuit of the "real," the Gang Starr duo of Guru and DJ Premier (a k a Christopher Martin) have abandoned the jazz flavors that once made their albums, as well as Guru's Jazzmatazz project, so fresh. Outflanked on the hip-hop/jazz front by Digable Planets and US3, Gang Starr tries to reestablish its hard-core credentials with an album that finds Guru rapping about sucker MCs and pistol-packing homeboys while Premier loops funky but repetitive beats behind him. Most of the cuts start strong with a catchy rhythm riff, but Premier fails to vary things before the tracks get tired.
Guru has a lot of nerve dissing other rappers for their "corny rhymes" when he serves up lame lines like "I still think you don't understand ... we get more props than Dan ... Rather." With his dull, nasal baritone, Guru is neither as musical as L.L. Cool J and Heavy D nor as hypnotic as Rakim and Ice Cube.
Nonetheless, like most rap albums, "Hard to Earn" is a bunch of throwaway tracks redeemed by one or two knockouts. The first single, "Mass Appeal," is a showcase for Premier's ability to scratch and sample to create a complex, crowded soundscape where a dozen different elements jostle for position. Even better is "Tonz 'O' Gunz," a sobering rap on the plague of guns in America's cities delivered with deadpan authority over a nervously ticking high-hat beat and a high-pitched scream that might be either a police siren or a wailing mother. And almost as good is "The Planet," the story of Guru's move to Brooklyn rapped over Premier's montage of '70s funk motifs.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call 202-334-9000 and press 8171.)
"Above the Rim: The Soundtrack"
"Above the Rim: The Soundtrack" (Death Row/Interscope) is being promoted with the tag line "Supervising producer: Dr. Dre." Consumers should be aware that a "supervising producer" is someone who puts the acts and the producers together and sells the package to the filmmakers; he's not the actual producer in the studio. A supervising producer is a dealmaker, not a musicmaker, and Dr. Dre is credited with actual hands-on production for just one of the 18 cuts on the soundtrack (he crafted the fat, mesmerizing beats on the Lady of Rage's "Afro Puffs").
Dr. Dre's main contribution was to fill the soundtrack with the lesser-known acts on his Death Row label. Most of them deserve to remain obscure, but the Lady of Rage raps with authority, Jewell shows off a legitimate soul voice, and Rhythm & Knowledge turns in an expert rip-off of George Clinton's "Atomic Dog" on "U Bring da Dog Out." Dre does contribute his label's biggest star, Snoop Doggy Dogg, who joins Dat Nigga Daz and Kurupt the Kingpin in the rap trio Tha Dogg Pound Gangstas, for two cuts. Deprived of Dre's personal services, though, the best the Dogg Pound can come up with is formulaic, glib glorifications of prostitution and gunplay. The rappers are counterbalanced by non-Death Row soul-vocal acts like SWV, Al B. Sure, D.J. Rogers, Sweet Sable, H-Town and 2nd II None.
In the end, however, Dr. Dre's party is stolen by the guys from Jodeci. The album's two best songs were produced and co-written by Jodeci's DeVante Swing; he guided the male harmony group H-Town through the steamy seduction ballad "Part Time Lover" and newcomer B Rezell through the half-rapped, half-sung manifesto "Blowed Away." The latter track, irresistible with its whispery raps, sugary melodies and lazy groove, promotes marijuana as an alternative to violence; its motto seems to be "Smoke dope, not homeboys." Nearly as good is Jewell's "It's Not Deep Enough," produced and co-written by Jodeci's Mr. Dalvin, who transforms the song's raw sex talk into a classic soul-harmony arrangement.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call 202-334-9000 and press 8172.)