Review Summary: You know their steez.
If any MC (in any 52 states) has shown growth throughout his tenure in the industry, no one’s has been more pronounced than Guru of Gang Starr, whose evolution has not necessarily come through emotional vents, as are often sparked by troubling circumstances or internal struggles, but rather through assiduous improvement. The progenitor and champion of the laid back hip-hop delivery, Guru’s proliferation in talent has not so much been the refining of a skill, but rather the perfection of a craft; from cultivating a style in the early ‘90s that has since influenced thousands of aspiring emcees to, with his deejaying compatriot Premier, almost redefining a genre entirely in 1998 with the eminent Moment of Truth
, Guru’s legacy is indeed impressive, and with a litany of classics to his name, it’s hardly any wonder that he has been posthumously revered as one of hip-hop’s greatest graces – but that’s what makes the duo’s second album a bit of a conundrum for some. DJ Premier’s talent was always an undeniably consistent factor, not only for Gang Starr, but throughout hip-hop as a whole, but some see Guru’s story as radically different. The truth is, the lyrical display on Step in the Arena
can be awkwardly hit-or-miss at times, with rhymes that hit every color on the spectrum. It’s odd though; for every classic line delivered, there’s a “she made like a grizzly /and started chewin’ my head off” lurking somewhere on the track, but even the most laughable bars have such an affable delivery that it’s difficult for them to linger as blemishes on the album’s façade.
Nevertheless, the fledgling-esque rhymes and the slightly disorganized verses are the album’s sole defect. The oddly abrupt ending to “Execution of a Chump”, which bears witness to Guru’s versatility as he delivers multi-syllabic rhymes with an impressive flow, only to cut off suddenly and finish with “but if you step up like the kid who did front /Then you will bear witness the execution of a chump”, is one of the more telling features of the album that shows the incredible potential of the rapper. It’s a brusque departure in every way – rhyme-wise, flow-wise, and content-wise – from the rest of the seemingly truncated verse, but it’s also the genesis of an undeniably beautiful maturation that still stands as one of music’s finest. Complementing the rare (but there) haphazard verses are Guru’s rudimentary rhyme schemes on the album, including rhyming conjunctions – “Fools with no rhyme skills messin’ up the flow /And people with no sense who be movin’ much too slow/And so” being an excellent example of both – which, when considered amongst the rest of the Gang’s discography is nostalgic, but even when considered as part of the album by itself, is surprisingly endearing, which is perhaps what makes Guru such a unique figure in hip-hop; regardless of the taboos and unwritten rules that Guru occasionally violates, it seems he can do no wrong, and even when he does violate those aforementioned rules, he does so with such brazen charisma that it’s impossible to fault him for it. And of course Guru’s famous penchant for story-telling consistently rears its head on the album. “Just to Get a Rep” is, in all its simplicity, a captivating chronicle of criminal street life and “Love Sick” is a boldly emotional (in a genre that has, at least in the past, been notorious for its dearth of emotional tales and love stories) account of a relationship from its charming and jubilant origins to its jealousy-ridden and painful end. It sounds almost like a hundred experiments in music collected into 18 songs, but with Premier’s unmistakably raw and focused production and Guru’s rugged and reposed delivery, Step in the Arena
is really just a great hip-hop album, and that’s all it can be described as – no more flamboyant than the record itself is – great hip-hop. It’s the first true Gang Starr classic, and the undergirding of one of the most celebrated and illustrious duos in the history of hip-hop. And if that’s not enough of an impetus to listen, it’s fun as hell.