(Editor’s note: I originally wrote this as a series of 7 different posts during my 365 Days of Soul series in 2015 (beginning here). To make it easier on folks, I consolidated it into a single post here and back-dated it to what would have been the album’s 10th anniversary. –O.W.)
Gang Starr: Robbin Hood Theory (Noo Trybe, 1998, Moment of Truth)
I was recently listening to Moment of Truth again…probably the first time in close to 10 years that I’ve just put it on, front to back.
I’ve always ranked Gang Starr albums like this:
1. Hard to Earn
2. Step In the Arena
3. Moment of Truth
4-6 (tied) Daily Operation, No More Mr. Nice Guy, The Ownerz1
Sometimes, #1 and 2 flip positions but Moment of Truth has never risen above the #3 spot.
It’s one of those albums that, instinctually, I know is a “good album” yet equally instinctually, I don’t connect with it. (See also: the second Brand Nubian album). But I decided to pull it out again and give it another end-to-end listen, just to see if my feelings had changed. Plus, I need to fill this “post a day” quota I stupidly committed myself to so why not create a bunch of posts to think all this through aloud?
1) Let’s just say this upfront: five out of the first six tracks are killer.2 Gang Starr had already teased us with “You Know My Steez” but the first new song we heard was “Robbin Hood Theory” and I remember thinking, “oh shit, man, this is gonna be good.”
Gang Starr feat. Inspectah Deck : Above the Clouds (Noo Trybe, 1998, Moment of Truth)
2) Whether good or bad, the album peaks here, at Track 5. Not only is this one of the best songs on the album, but it’s easily among the very best songs Gang Starr ever released. I always heard rumors that Inspectah Deck wrote Guru’s rhymes on the song and that sounds plausible but I also don’t really care if there was ghost-writing here or not. In the end, it comes down to Premier’s incredible flip of a [redacted] loop none of us would have ever paid attention to and, of course, Deck’s verse. I will forever have the phrase, “I leave scientists mentally scarred/triple extra large/wild like rock stars/that smash guitars” burned into my head.
Gang Starr: JFX to LAX (Noo Trybe, 1998, Moment of Truth)
3) “JFK to LAX” is solid too and here’s something I only started thinking about the other night. Despite the fact that, you know, the cover is Guru and Premier in court…despite the fact that this entire song is devoted to Guru working out his feelings about at the gun charge he caught at the airport…I never realized the degree to which Moment of Truth is suffused in the aftermath of that event. On a psychic level, it clearly weighed on Guru and in reaction, he addressed it both directly and obliquely on any number of songs clustered around this point in the album.
In that sense, I found MOT more interesting than I had previously, where I was more focused on analyzing it as a collection of songs (“does it bang?”) and overlooked the what-should-have-been-obvious-fact that Guru’s arrest haunts the entire middle of the album.
Sauce Money Against the Grain (Loud, 1997, Soul In the Hole)
4) But here’s the thing about that middle section: however thematically compelling and interesting, musically, it’s where MOT lost me. Trust, I was surprised in feeling this way.
Let me pause and point out that my favorite era for Premier’s sound was in the five years from ’93-’98. Both his Gang Starr production and his outside work was impeccable. Even something that might seem slightly throwaway – a Sauce Money soundtrack song for example – could sound revelatory. 3 here is some next level brilliance.]
Gang Starr: The Militia (Soul Brother Remix) (Noo Trybe, 1998, 12″)
5) But back to Moment of Truth. That middle section, from “Itz a Set Up” through “The Rep Grows Bigga,” is where the album loses me musically. Again: I certainly wouldn’t have expected that.
To me, this part of the album is where Premier’s emergent production style begins to really make its presence felt. If you listen to his broader discography in this era – late ’90s through early ’00s – Moment of Truth is where it comes into full bloom. There’s more chopping, less long loops. It leans more towards a “harder” sound – aggressive guitar rips, sharp, staccato cuts, muscular baselines, etc. Even re-reading what I just wrote, my impulse is to say “wait, those all sound like good things” but for whatever reason, the style just left/leaves me a bit cold. It was telling that for “The Militia,” I always much preferred Pete Rock’s remix (which had more in common with older Primo styles) than the album version.
If this isn’t abundantly clear, what I’m saying here is: it’s not you (Preem), it’s me.
Gang Starr feat. Scarface: Betrayal (Noo Trybe, 1998, Moment of Truth)
6) For the reasons I just laid out, practically the entire back 2/3rds of the album is filled with songs I’d FF over. And can we be real here, fam? 1998-99 seemed to be some kind of zenith for “albums too long for their own good” and while Moment of Truth wasn’t, technically, a double album, it had 20 tracks which is practically 2xLP length anyway. As good as any group could be in that era, even Gang Starr seemed to have trouble filling that many songs without programming a few middling tracks along the way (see also: Wu-Tang Forever).
I sort of like the melancholy feel of “What I’m Here 4” but any momentum that gets generated dissipates with the very next song (“She Knowz What She Wantz”) which might be the softest track in the group’s whole catalog. It’s not until Track 18, “Betrayal” that I perk up interest again. The Scarface cameo obviously has something to do with that but mostly, it’s the rich textures of the track that brought me back, especially with all the layers of sound Primo has working there. Easily one of the best-sounding tracks on the album and a capstone to the producer’s gifts in the era.
Gang Starr : In Memory Of… (Noo Trybe, 1998, Moment of Truth)
7) In writing these posts and forcing myself to re-engage the album, I found myself amending that list I put up on post #1.
1. Hard to Earn
2. Step In the Arena
3. Daily Operation
4-6 (tied) Moment of Truth, No More Mr. Nice Guy, The Ownerz
For the longest time, I always thought Daily Operation was the Gang Starr album I didn’t rate as highly as “consensus” does but in comparing the two, side-by-side, Daily Operation clearly has more songs I’d rather rock to.
But more broadly speaking, this exercise also brought home how very sophisticated most of their albums were. Even if Moment ran overly long, it wasn’t just a jumble of aspiring “hot tracks” but rather, songs with thematic depth and resonance with one another. I don’t know if I’d go as far as describe Moment as a “concept album” in the conventional sense but it also wasn’t a smattering of songs hastily slapped together either.
- I have a hard time ranking those three albums against one another since there’s both songs I love and songs I’m “meh” on and none of them have the magic ratio to clearly put it ahead of another. ↩
- The one that’s not? “Royalty.” Never liked it. Still don’t. ↩
- Seriously, the way Preem flips [redacted ↩