Elvis Presley’s manager Colonel Tom Parker is famously reputed to have responded to the news of his charge’s premature death by snapping “This changes nothing!” Frequently held up as an example of almost inhuman coldness, they’re nevertheless words the music industry took to heart.
Posthumous “new” albums are everywhere these days, but no other genre has taken the concept and run with it quite like hip-hop. From Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Eazy-E to XXXTentacion and Lil Peep, it seems no rap artist is capable of going to the grave, however prematurely, without having their unreleased recordings turned into product following their death. Tupac Shakur managed to crank out seven new albums in the decade following his murder. His nemesis, Biggie Smalls, unexpectedly popped up 20 years after his death thanks to a new album of duets with his widow, Faith Evans. And revered producer J Dilla’s posthumous discography vastly outweighs the solo releases he put out in his lifetime.
Whether you file this kind of thing under merciless exploitation or giving fans what they want, DJ Premier’s reactivation of the Gang Starr name, 16 years after their final album and nine after rapper Guru died of cancer, is a cut above. As indeed were Gang Starr during their career. They never sold vast quantities of records – their biggest commercial success, 1999’s Moment of Truth, went gold in the US, respectable rather than earth-shattering sales by the standards of the era’s blockbusting hip-hop hits – but from their second album, Step in the Arena, onwards, the duo seldom put a foot wrong artistically.
There’s a compelling argument to be made that Guru was the most gifted east coast rapper of his era. Premier’s production style, meanwhile, proved hugely influential: commercial but raw, big on grimy drums, filtered bass lines, samples that literally sounded gritty – the crackle of old vinyl as proud testament to his crate-digging skills – and old lyrics from the artist’s back catalogue scratched into the mix. In the 90s, his signature sound ended up everywhere from Nas’s Illmatic to D’Angelo’s Voodoo to, alas, Limp Bizkit’s Significant Other. Two decades on, more than one writer has been moved to suggest it embodies the spirit of pre-gentrification New York itself.
It’s a sound much in evidence here: you never want for boom-bap beats, artfully warped orchestral samples, evidence of aged vinyl or scratching. One of the Best Yet is released into a very different hip-hop landscape to Gang Starr’s last album, 2003’s The Ownerz, but it doesn’t make any attempt to relocate Gang Starr into a more contemporary setting. For all Guru’s talk of “real hip-hop” and “true artists” on the brilliant Bad Name or the bemoaning of fly-by-night talents on So Many Rappers, this is clearly not an album designed to lure kids away from today’s massed ranks of face-tatted mumblers. Rather, it’s squarely aimed at existing fans, who may well be inclined to remark on how brilliantly the old tricks still work: the drama of the strings on Take Flight (Militia, Pt 4), or the muted, soundtrack-like backing of Bless the Mic.
Premier avoids the pitfalls of posthumous releases. The material he has to work with isn’t stretched too thin – tracks linger long enough for Guru to make his point, then stop; the whole thing clocks in under 40 minutes – and the cameo roles seem to have been filled on the basis of compatibility rather than commerce. The one big contemporary name is J Cole, whose position as upholder of traditional hip-hop values and conscience of mainstream rap is well-established. “Who’d have thought J Cole would be rhyming with ghosts?” he wonders, over a beautifully mournful piano figure on Family and Loyalty. Mostly, the guest microphone is ceded either to Guru’s contemporaries or Gang Starr associates: Q-Tip, Jeru the Damaja, Big Shug, and Group Home, whose turn on What’s Real belies the obscurity into which the duo have fallen since the mid-90s.
There was a time when Gang Starr’s story seemed to have ended rather sadly. The duo’s split clearly wasn’t without acrimony. Worse, on Guru’s passing, his controversial latter-day producer Solar published a bizarre letter, supposedly written by the rapper on his deathbed, insisting that he wanted Premier to “have nothing to do with my name, likeness, events, tributes etc”.Some people insisted the letter was faked by Solar, and alleged abuse and neglect on his part. But you didn’t have to take sides to think this was no way for one of hip-hop’s most intelligent voices to go out. In that context, a genuinely strong final album with Gang Starr’s name on it, even an artfully patched-together one, feels not unlike righting a historical wrong. One of the Best Yet does exactly what long-term fans might expect a Gang Starr album to do. As a full stop to their career, it works perfectly. In the pantheon of posthumous albums, it lives up to its name.