Sunday, April 2, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 988: Gang Starr

I am in the middle of a delightfully relaxing weekend, chilling out with my lovely wife and watching the world go by. It was exactly what I needed.

I even found time for a small CD shop. I bought four albums: the new Shovels & Rope album, the new Aimee Mann album, as well as old seventies albums by John Prine and Heart. I’ll talk about those when I roll ‘em.

Disc 988 is…Moment of Truth
Artist: Gang Starr

Year of Release: 1998

What’s up with the Cover? Guru and DJ Premier approach the bench. Presumably the judge is explaining that a tour shirt is not appropriate attire for the court room. Also everything is bathed in a golden light. Is the courtroom under some curious enchantment or am I having a stroke? Does anyone else smell toast?

How I Came To Know It: I already knew Gang Starr and thought I had enough of their music to be happy when my friend Patrick sent me a Youtube clip of the song “The Militia”. When I heard it, I knew I had to have whatever album it was on. This was it.

How It Stacks Up:  I have six Gang Starr albums, which is all of them. Of those six, I put “Moment of Truth” fifth.

Ratings: 2 stars

“Know when to say when” is an expression that was temporarily forgotten in the heyday of the compact disc. All of a sudden artists had a format that could hold 80 minutes of music and were determined to use it. Songs that should have been cut and left on the studio floor started making it onto albums. Gang Starr is a repeat offender of this failure to edit, and “Moment of Truth” is this tendency at its worst.

I’ve gone on about album length many times in the past, but that’s because it is important. Overly long albums are hard to focus on, and almost always have weak and self-indulgent selections. There is plenty of good music on “Moment of Truth” but like a clogged artery, it is made less efficient because of all the musical congestion. This album has 20 songs and is 78 minutes long. If you aren’t “The Wall” or “London Calling” there is a good chance this is a mistake.

In addition to songs that are forgettable, “Moment of Truth” also wastes time with skits and rants. This includes a series of phone messages from sexy women offering Guru support in the wake of his arrest for gun possession (as well as a song “JFK 2 LAX” about the same topic). Both the song and the skit should go.

Later Guru spits some invective at other rappers who reveal where Gang Starr is getting samples. “Moment of Truth” came out in the era where you were legally required to pay to sample other songs, which has severely limited the way the art form has evolved – and not for the better. While I share Guru’s sentiment I’d rather listen to music, not a long diatribe about not being a fink.

For all these complaints, I still enjoyed this album. If some rap is for dancing, some for driving and some for having a party, “Moment of Truth” is rap for chillin’ out. The sound is heavily influenced by jazz and 70s smooth and the beats are laid back and slow. Guru’s rhymes take their time unfolding, focusing on smooth cadence over furiously packing a lot of rhymes into a single line.

Also this album features one of my favourite rap songs of all time, “The Militia.” A classic “we rap better than you” track, “The Militia” has a funky R&B guitar sample, and some sweet scratching from DJ Premier. The song is a collaboration of a number of artists, including Big Shug and Freddie Foxxx. When Freddie Foxxx takes the mic at the end and starts spitting about delivering beat downs (through both his raps and his fists) it is one of rap’s great moments.

Thematically, the album covers a lot of ground, including the pressures of maintaining the rap lifestyle (even when it can be unhealthy) as well as the importance of working hard if you want to succeed at the rap game. I’ve always admired the positive messages that wind through Gang Starr albums. Behind all the requisite references to guns and girls, Gang Starr is a self-examined bunch. As they say on the title track:

“Don’t even feel like drinking or even getting high
‘Cause all that’s gonna do really is accelerate
The anxieties I wish I could alleviate.”

Not many rappers would admit that they are avoiding drinking and drugs, and later in this song Guru doubles down, eschewing violence as well:

I’m ready to lose my mind but instead I use my mind
I put down the knife and take the bullets out of my nine
My only crime was that I’m too damned kind
And now some scandalous Motherf___s wanna take what’s mine
But they can’t take the respect that I’ve earned in my lifetime
And you know they’ll never stop the furious force of my rhymes.”

Not many rappers would be brave enough to talk this way, but Guru not only does so, he manages to sound tough at the same time. His rhymes are powerful enough to protect him all on their own.

Unfortunately, these messages are spread through a massive and sprawling album that threatens to drown them in a sea of less compelling songs. Less is more, Gang Starr.

Best tracks: You Know My Steez, Moment of Truth, B.I. vs. Friendship, the Militia

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