Gang Starr discs are like John Edgar Wideman's powerful novels: They are fun and terse, finely tuned and linguistically genius, sonically surprising, timely and masterful, sometimes misunderstood and, unfortunately, largely overlooked outside the lower frequencies of the hip-hop world. Guru and DJ Premier are second only to Eric B and Rakim in terms of reproducing the intensity of roots hip-hop: an MC, a DJ, two turntables and a microphone. Well before Beck turned that last phrase into indie parlance for being "down," Gang Starr was making the mantra into art. Go listen to 1991's Enter the Arena, 1992's Daily Operation, 1993's Hard to Earn and 1998's Moment of Truth--it's a catalog of consistently strong hip-hop discs.
Where it's at now is on Ownerz. Primo sounds as strong and gorgeous as he ever has. Against solid-state beat-baselines, Primo's hands skitter, riff and stutter melodies, voices and scratches from behind the tables. Guru is like a documentary maker: He's managed to turn a one-dimensional voice into an artistic instrument. He is also a lyricist of real intelligence and skill. On "Peace of Mind" the two twine their styles together to make a hip-hop anti-anthem: They critique bogus hip-hop by producing a tight, smart, ideal Gang Starr track--"Of course I want money/But I won't compromise/Y'all don't realize/Think I won't bomb you guys/With the truth." It reminds you of their classic "Mass Appeal" without being redundant.
The duo has always been smart about the guests they invite onto their records, giving them space to really rhyme instead of ad-libbing for false effects. Guru is generous to a fault when he lets the likes of Big Shug, Fat Joe, Jadakiss and Snoop take over tracks. This is an apt hyperbole: It's like Miles Davis stepping away while John Coltrane or Tony Williams improvises till his story's told. But the jazz turn does speak to Primo's sensibility. He is always mixing hiccup rhythms with the smartest samples, always reminding you of hip-hop's history and his own history. When he samples Mobb Deep's "Survival of the Fittest" on the down-tempo track "In This Life...," not only is he reminding you of the great DJing he did for others in the mid-'90s, he's also setting the tone for the surprisingly jazzy verse that Snoop drops: "A Gang Starr with a gangsta/On a mission/World premier/Limited edition." The track is laid-back but also intense, in the way that Guru and Snoop move beyond the first-person introspective to do urban social commentary--just as Mobb Deep did on The Infamous.
Hip-hop can still be and should be fun, good-time music; it can and should also be challenging, musically wise and lyrically surprising. Gang Starr proves that much--make it well, give it life and you can reinvent it again and again. Ownership has its multiple benefits.