By Daniel B. Honigman
Rating: 3 (out of 5)
There are very few acts in hip-hop today that are really a throwback to its “Golden Age” of 1988-1992 (or even 93/94). While I wasn’t the biggest hip-hop head at the time (I was about five years old) I did a bit of catching up in my more formative years. But when I think of what was on the airwaves – and on The Box – those days, I think of Rakim, Tribe, De La, KRS-One and the early years of a duo comprised of a DJ named Premier and an emcee named Guru.
Hailing from Boston and Houston, Guru (Keith Elam) and DJ Premier (Chris Martin) each brought something special to the table: Guru brought his smooth, if not monotonic, lyrical approach to hip-hop, while Premier was a top-notch producer and DJ who incorporated a lot of funk, jazz and soul samples into his beats.
On the side, Guru was keeping busy with his real passion, it seemed: finding a way to fuse hip-hop and jazz, a perfect supplement for Gang Starr fans. His first Jazzmatazz release in 1993 featured Branford Marsalis, Roy Ayers, Donald Byrd and Lonnie Smith.
Much like previous albums in the series, Guru’s guestlist for Guru’s Jazzmatazz, Vol. 4: Back to the Future (7 Grand/Koch), stays top-shelf. Hip-hop’s Common, Blackalicious and Slum Village rub shoulders with jazz and R&B VIPs like David Sanborn, Ronnie Laws and Vivian Green. On the first Jazzmatazz album, Guru held his own with the jazz greats. Unfortunately, the quality cameos this time around overshadow Guru, who barely skates by.
His partner in crime, the New York-based DJ Solar, is charged, along with Guru with the difficult task of finding a way to combine hip-hop and jazz. Unfortunately, they fall flat on most of the album, giving plenty of “matazz,” but not too much jazz. (Hardy har-har.) In fact, Guru and Solar fail to really connect the two until the last track, Living Legend, which features a turbo-charged alto sax performance from Sanborn. And instead of closing the album on a high note, it makes one wonder about what could have been.
Case and point, State of Clarity, which features Common and Bob James. Guru is clearly outshined on this track, and Common is more Guru than it seems Guru can be: “My mind blows decisions/at times indecisive/you think about the paradox that life is/keep my head to the sky/and understand where Christ is/turn off the news/’cause every day is a crisis/lifeless, on the couch weeded out/ a certain type of n***a in my life I weeded out/I believe in the route of soul before paper/no gold before labor/truth told with no blazers.”
This album doesn’t feature the hard-hitting rhymes (You Know My Steez, Take It Personal) or the adroit storytelling (Soliloquy of Chaos) we’re used to from Guru. But he’s all business on Fly Magnetic, the album’s best track, as he nonchalantly explains what would happen – check that, will happen – once your girl takes one look at him. This may be the best we’ve seen from Guru in a while: “Loving my charming wit/don’t want no part of this/no time for tricks/I’m in the mix like Spartacus/More like Hannibal/With thoughts like Confucius/sending her home to you/but I seen how it’s useless/I told her to back away/Left now she’s back today/thought you had her in check/Got my own chicks on deck.”
If you haven’t checked out any of the Jazzmatazz series before, you would be better served by starting from the beginning. Picking up this album now would be like tuning into “The Sopranos” just as Meadow walks into the diner in the series finale. This album’s worth checking out, at least given Guru’s track record. There’s enough here to groove to, but just don’t expect to be blown away.
(This review originally appeared on HipHopDX.com)