Thursday, July 5, 2018

CD Odyssey Disc 1155: Gang Starr

I got home very tired last night and didn’t have it in me to review my album. That’s OK because the extra day I spent listening to it made me appreciate it more.

Disc 1155 is… No More Mr. Nice Guy
Artist: Gang Starr

Year of Release: 1989

What’s up with the Cover? Two super cool dudes wearing clothes that are no longer super cool. The “white out” background is similarly of its time.

How I Came To Know It: I was just digging through Gang Starr’s discography and found this early gem. Like most other Gang Starr I’ve heard, I liked it.

How It Stacks Up:  I have six Gang Starr albums, which is all of them. Of the six, “No More Mr. Nice Guy” comes in 4th.

Ratings: 3 stars

Gang Starr’s first album is raw and uneven, but laced with plenty of tracks that hint at greatness to come. This album is just a cool beat, a couple of well-placed samples and Guru droppin’ rhymes. It isn’t the sheer brilliance of 1991’s “Step in the Arena” but it has plenty to recommend it.

Best of these is “Manifest,” a classic rap song from the golden age of rap - a time when rappers rapped about rappin’. Guru’s flow is back on the beat but still maintain a groovy energy, combining rapid-fire MF Doom style rhyme density with basic couplets that gives the song structure. The groove has a heavy jazz feel, which is an influence felt throughout the record.

If anything there is too much jazz, particularly “Jazz Music” which is an homage to the history of the style. Despite many attempted visits to the altar of jazz, I can never bring myself to worship there, so while I like the isolated samples on the record, I can’t pick up what they’re putting down on “Jazz Music.”

When they’re not rappin’ about rappin’, Gang Starr spends their time providing positive messages like staying positive (“Positivity”) and how your actions impact others (“Cause and Effect”). It is a minor miracle that it doesn’t come off as an after-school special, or public service announcement. Instead, these positive songs inspire some of the better rhymes on the record.

This call to live a mindful life is the progenitor of a lot of today’s socially conscious rap and despite the sometimes obvious messages, it remains heartfelt and real. More impressive is that Gang Starr can deliver the message without ever resorting to politics. These are universal messages about how to treat your fellow man, not surface-level complaints about politics of the day. As a result, thirty years later the songs are still fresh.

The beats are fresh as well, with some solid scratching from DJ Premier. On “DJ Premier in Deep Concentration” it feels like he’s just showing off, but you are too busy appreciating the skill to mind.

Rap was so pure in the day, and the samples employed were always repurposed in a way that made it into new art. The sample laws of the early nineties did a big disservice to rap, but in 1989 early adopters like Gang Starr were free to try whatever would work. They respected the privilege and the result is some very cool sample layers mixing funk and jazz into something new. On top of it all, Guru drops his rhymes, unhurried and confident flow. That flow has more than a few imperfect rhymes and there were times it made me cringe, but for the most part Guru’s skillful delivery makes it work.

My biggest complaint with this record is it is too long. It features 14 songs, but two are remixes (“Positivity” and “Manifest”) and neither is necessary. The remix of “Manifest” is particularly disappointing, because it pushes the vocals to the back of the mix, making your ear strain to hear it. These early beats can’t carry all that extra load, and it just felt like Guru was rapping through a tin can attached to a string.

There are a few other songs I could live without as well, but overall “No More Mr. Nice Guy” is a classic of early rap music. It isn’t the best record of its time, but it is worth your time if you like this era of the art form.

Best tracks: Manifest (original mix), Gusto, Cause and Effect, 2 Steps Ahead, Knowledge, Positivity (original mix)

No comments: