It’s been nine years since a cardiac arrest triggered the coma that caused the final exhales of baldhead slick, the monotone listen-to-more jazzmattaz legend nicknamed the Guru. The Grammys offered no posthumous tribute. The rap Internet, amidst its short-form Zshare heyday, mostly offered quick bromides and YouTube aggregation. But the murky circumstances of his death, the peculiar relationship with Solar, the relative quiescence since 2003’s The Ownerz, ensured that the gravity of the loss wouldn’t be properly commemorated.
In their prime, Gang Starr defined the platonic ideal of the MC and DJ collaboration. Maybe you preferred Rakim and Eric B, but no one would every mistake the latter’s (allegedly) ghost-produced contributions with Preemo’s blacktop symphonies, a swirling wax rain of orchestral loops, atavistic drums, and scratched hooks that transformed cold dialogue into diabolic soul. Pete Rock was his chief peer, but CL Smooth couldn’t match Guru’s telepathic wisdom or old testament voice. After all, it was mostly that.
Biggie and Pac became martyrs. Big L became a “what if” scenario. Big Pun exists as a platinum symbol for a historically underrepresented swath of a broader hip-hop nation. ODB is almost a Syd Barrett-like figure, fractured genius warped by temptation and circumstance. But Gang Starr and Guru were just dope, and “dope” is archaic slang rarely spoken by anyone old enough to remember “Moment of Truth.”
One of the Best Yet shrewdly announced its existence with “Family and Loyalty,” a hit of atomic nostalgia built to yield mushroom clouds of memory. For those whose beards are flecked with gray, those sweetly sinister strings and carving knife piano keys conjure images of Jeeps with booming systems long heaped in the junkyard. High school basketball games and Starter Jackets that now sell on eBay for even more than you stole them for. J Cole is conscripted to speak to the kids, even though he’s in his mid-30s and surely has enough aches to rightfully participate in this antique roadshow.
One of the things that was always so comforting about Gang Starr is that there was no doubt. If some groups explored shadowy terrain or the dark corners of the subconscious, Guru and Premier kept it black and white. Stick up kids were out to task. Come with that weak shit, they’d break it. Warrior spirituals. The formulas might have been updated, but it was always going to be Guru and Premier. They told you up front: you know the steez.
Credit the genius of Premier that he intuitively understood that no algorithmic rituals or popular whim could diminish the timelessness of their original body of work. Nostalgia can be valuable so long as it doesn’t devolve into grotesque sentiment. Memory is vital to the way we process and cope with the world, so long as it isn’t cynically manipulated. Gang Starr strove for purity, which is impossible and usually undesirable in life, but can be staggeringly powerful in art. And on their final record, there is the unavoidable truth that this is a chance to create a final statement — perhaps not a perfect one, but the opportunity to tell one last time who they were and what they stood for. Yet Gang Starr was never merely about the graven ideas; they were the sum of the emotion conjured when everything became a perfect symbiosis. Here it is.
This is one more cup of coffee. The sureshot hitting its target right as the rifle falls to the ground. It might not make sense if you’re under 30, but few ever succeeded in being all things to everybody. Gang Starr were never about mass appeal anyway. This is about corralling the audience they built and unwillingly abandoned. It’s obvious from the first track. There it is, the loop from “Royalty” working the mystic cords of memory like a rotary phone. You hear “Work” and remember what it was like to hear it before you ever had a job.
The whole cast is here. Group Home and Jeru, Big Shug and Freddie fucking Foxx, the militia reformed. Q-Tip and the Mash Out Posse. The latter obliterate my personal favorite song “Lights Out,” where Fame and William Danzini Esq. operate like a backing choir from Hades. Guru booms axioms from the grave, the drums hitting like a hailstorm of lead safes, the fanged cackles of the Brownsville Cerberus in the background. Once more and for the last time, there is Keithy E, paranoid and aggressive, confident with his fists clenched. All we need is a Krumbsnatcha verse.
Of course, some of the Guru lyrics are trite. There is the false bling versus authentic binary as though Wu Tang didn’t tell you to get cream wearing cuban linx and beef and broccoli Wallabees. There is an emphasis on the notion of “real,” which depending on your vantage point can seem either direly needed or patently absurd in the grifter-takes-all mentality of America 2019. Perhaps I’m a tedious sentimentalist at heart, but I will always believe that the realness is an eternal necessity to support the human spirit. it’s not a style or a lyrical posture, but a gesture of sincerity, a belief in the self, a refusal to compromise or bend, the steadfast dedication to resist the current until you’ve eventually swept away by it.
It’s only real analogue is the Tribe Called Quest album from 2016. It might lack the political context of that missive, but it’s equally effective in its sneak attack. It’s a love letter to endangered beliefs, a miraculous Frankenstein built long after the hope died down of anything remotely this good ever coming from the vaults. And just like the Tribe album, this album somehow successfully weaves an ephemeral magic where the years have rolled back, the spring in your legs has returned, and the electron velocity in your brain bears no evidence of decay. It’s not squeezing life out of death, but rather celebrating the rare alchemy of a duo tragically deprived their natural goodbye. One more eternal tablet.
With the benefit of time, you can hear the echos of Guru in someone like Roc Marci or Ka, Billy Woods and Griselda, or even Earl with his monotone style. The unassailable integrity has lived on, embedded in the DNA of the modern subterranean, consciously or not. There is Guru lamenting the rappers come and gone, and it’s hard not to be consoled by how deeply he cared about his craft. Whereas with the so many true schoolers, the rhetoric can seem empty and sanctimonious, but Guru had the talent to make it seem like a death battle. He felt the struggle so deeply because the art was sacred. He was trying to protect it against the encroaching death grip of capitalism and scammers, the irreconcilable vendetta between singular vision and mass commerce. The culture that was overturned by malign holy writ: the solipsistic fallacy that you’re always good because you’re popular and you’re always popular because you’re good.
At the time of his death, it seemed blisteringly corny to be lectured about change. Change is natural we’re told, a fundamental and biological function of life. And for so long, we were fed the same lies that change was synonymous with progression. It’s easier to remember at this moment how the arc of the moral universe may bend towards justice, but there are undeniably periods of dark ages.
That is not to say that rap is bad right now. There is plenty of genius currently at work. But there is no Guru. In him, we had the son of a judge (the first black jurist appointed to the Massachusetts Supreme Court), and One of the Best Yet collects the last decrees of one of the most eminent moral authorities we ever had. Whether it is great or merely good, this record reminds me of what I loved about rap music in the first place. We’re blessed with a final return to the foundation, a trip down memory lane where the name Keith Elam is inscribed with an indelible mark.