MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
A new album from the Brooklyn hip-hop duo Gang Starr debuted over the weekend, this despite the fact that the group broke up more than 15 years ago and that one half of the duo died not long after that. The new release is called "One Of The Best Yet," and for reviewer Oliver Wang, it is a welcome throwback to an earlier rap era.
OLIVER WANG, BYLINE: Hip-hop, sadly, is no stranger to the posthumous album, but most releases have come out relatively close to the passing of an artist. Even 2016's surprise A Tribe Called Quest album "We Got It From Here" came out just months after the death of core member Phife Dawg, so Tribe's performances still sounded of the current moment.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE DONALD")
A TRIBE CALLED QUEST: (Rapping) No doubt, I'ma (ph) set it. Dudes best be ready off top on the spot - no reading from your Wackberry (ph). Leave the iPhones home. Skill sets must be shown. I'ma show you the real meaning of the danger zone.
WANG: In contrast, Gang Starr's new and equally unexpected "One Of The Best Yet" relies on studio tapes of the late Keith Elam, better known as Guru, recorded roughly 15 years ago after what we all thought was the group's final record, 2003's "The Ownerz." This new album stays true to the sound that Gang Starr perfected across their first 15 years, pairing Guru's memorably monotone delivery of streetwise rhymes with DJ Premier's sample-slicing production.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIGHTS OUT")
GANG STARR: Gang Starr, M.O.P. Either ride or be quiet. What we gon' (ph) do? (Rapping) [Expletive], lights out. I told y'all this is the one I owe y'all. When you see me, act like you know I know y'all.
WANG: That this new album is wholly consistent with that Gang Starr style even all these years later is a little shocking, like falling through a wormhole back to the early 2000s. The only real hints that this was completed more recently are a couple of cameos by artists who were unknown teenagers at the time of Gang Starr's last album, like rapper J. Cole.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FAMILY AND LOYALTY")
J COLE: (Rapping) J. Cole, who'd have thought you would have been rhyming with ghosts? Guru flows forever like a diamond. The most could never afford the precious jewels. That's precisely why I'm blessing you with clear-cut messages. I'm destined to invest in urban sections where depression rules. I hope to heal the destitute before I leave this vestibule.
WANG: The problem, to the extent that it even is one, is that it's hard for the album not to sound just a little dated. So many younger acts have aped the Gang Starr formula over the decades that the duo's once-timeless style now feels overly familiar. More importantly, there is the simple reality that Guru isn't here to record new rhymes. If "One Of The Best Yet" feels like a time capsule, that's because, in some unavoidable ways, it is one.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SO MANY RAPPERS")
GANG STARR: (Rapping) So many one-hit wonders - it's like a spin of the wheel. You know I stay consistent and get it in for real. So many rappers want to rock like this, but they got no stamina, and they don't talk like this. Plus, I've learned to avoid the traps. I truly love this [expletive]. That's word to "MTV Raps." They'll get their little run and have a little fun. Some will go from popularity to a little then to none.
WANG: It's also, like that Tribe Called Quest album, a gift. As someone who was a Gang Starr fan since the late '80s, I had to experience the group's end twice over - first when the duo broke up in the mid-2000s, and then, of course, after Guru's death in 2010. To have a complete album of unreleased material to enjoy today is more than anyone could have asked for, let alone expected. If "One Of The Best Yet" is truly the last ride of DJ Premier and MC Guru, it's a welcome reminder of what made the group eternally great.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FROM A DISTANCE")
GANG STARR: (Rapping) Yo, I sat on the sidelines, watched you foolish men - fake hooligans. Now it's time for us to duel again.
KELLY: Our reviewer Oliver Wang is a sociology professor at Cal State Long Beach and co-host of the music podcast "Heat Rocks."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FROM A DISTANCE")
GANG STARR: (Rapping) Street fighter, contemporary, intelligent comrade, enemies I've been sent to bury... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.