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Gang Starr’s Step In the Arena is widely credited as one of the first albums to really pioneer a jazz/hip-hop fusion but people got it slightly wrong. Sure, DJ Premier sampled jazz songs to make some of the tracks for Arena but his innovation was taking the jazzy and making it funky. In comparison to the hepcat vibe of the Digable Planets or A Tribe Called Quest, Gang Starr never tried to take their aesthetic to the coffee houses – the rough edge of the street sound paved the album at its foundation.
Simply said, Step In the Arena is the best album Gang Starr’s ever released – a perfect synch of concept and execution that’s been paralleled by few other artists. In comparison to the uneven quality of No Mr. Nice Guy, Arena is a remarkably consistent and cohesive effort – each track falling into place exactly where it should. Guru’s rhymes – while never the most complex – are still delivered with a deft touch and he covers a wide range of styles – from the narrative storytelling of “Just To Get a Rep”, to the philosophical “Street Ministry” to the straight fire of “Who’s Gonna Take the Weight?”
Meanwhile, Primo emerges on this album as one of hip-hop’s, er, premier producers, digging in the proverbial crates for some sublime loops. He can come with some straight smashers like the head-whipping energy on “Who’s Gonna Take the Weight” and then chill everything out with the somber, hushed tones of “Say Your Prayers” or just thump along with the simplicity of “Step In the Arena”. I dare anyone to find a flat cut on here.
Daily Operation simply took these same, winning components and deepened them. Ironically, I personally never liked this LP as much as most did, but that’s more a question of personal taste – as a follow-up LP, it’s hard to fault. Everything Arena does, Daily Operation does too, just with new nuances and twists. Guru plays with more styles yet again, taking things a bit harder with cuts like “B.Y.S.” and “Take It Personal”, drafting up the weed anthem, “Take Two and Pass” and giving it up for Brooklyn on “The Place Where We Dwell”. The album also features the formal introduction of Jeru The Damaja and Lil Dap who lace the three-parter, “I’m The Man” alongside Guru but Jeru takes the day with his brutal lyricism, affixed to the bassline bombings of Charles Mingus.
On that note, Primo goes with it again. Instant classics: “Take It Personal” with its drum chops; “Soliloquy Of Chaos” illtacular strings; “B.Y.S.’” whipping piano smashes. Hell, even his interludes are tight – check how he takes an innoucous snippet from Aretha Franklin’s “Young, Gifted and Black” and makes it sound like it was born to be a beat.
True, Daily Operation doesn’t make as radical a change as the difference between Daily Operation and Hard to Earn, but it’s also a more than just Arena Pt. 2. It’s albums like these that make it difficult to pare down a list of must-have Gang Starr LPs – frankly, almost ALL of them are must-have.
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