There is an interesting moment in the opening seconds of Gang Starr’s Moment Of Truth. Guru is being interviewed about Gang Starr making their first record in four years and talking about the patented Gang Starr formula:
"We have certain formulas but we update ‘em with the times and everything y'know. So y'know the rhyme style is elevated. The style of beats is elevated but it's still Guru and Premier. And there’s always a message involved."This quote basically represents the entire theme of Gang Starr’s career but especially their fifth and finest album, 1998’s Moment Of Truth. Guru and Premier have doggedly stuck to a formula and singular aesthetic, (the two measure jazz influenced loops, the scratched vocal sample hooks, the razor sharp battle and street oriented rhymes, and a deep sense of social consciousness) for their entire twenty year career but Moment Of Truth is where they not only perfected it but crafted their definitive statement in hip hop and serves as their de-facto swan song. Their first record, No More Mr. Nice Guy, was embryonic and only showed brief flashes of the potential they possessed. Their second, Step In The Arena, is the moment we first see a recognizable Guru and Premier. By the time, they made Daily Operation and Hard To Earn they had crafted and perfected their aesthetic but still hadn’t made a definitive album that would etch their names in the pantheon of classic rap groups. Moment of Truth represents that moment for Gang Starr. The moment they become more than their reputation as a group with a great producer and a mediocre emcee and it transcend it to become rap legends.
The production like every Gang Starr record is the star of the show. There is a reason that DJ Premier’s production is regarded as the sound of New York ‘90s rap scene. Before this record, Primo was already in the pantheon of great rap producers as his work with Nas, Jay-Z, M.O.P., Jeru The Damaja, and Group Home can testify to this but this is the moment that sets him apart from even heavyweights like Pete Rock, Large Professor and Q-Tip and into the rarefied Dr. Dre/RZA territory. On this record, Primo goes onto some next level shit. He forgoes his traditional jazz and funk influenced loops and starts to work with a more orchestral and atonal sound. On songs like “In Memory Of”, “Above The Clouds”, and “She Knows What She Wants” highlights a more abstract but oddly melodic and complete sound. The tracks swirl around Guru’s vocals drawing attention to itself without distracting from Guru’s voice. What I like most about the album is that each song creates a very distinct and different mood that perfectly fits the song. The production on this album really crafts a story and brings unity to an otherwise diverse album topically. Each record sounds different but at the same time the same. Its quite brilliant.
What’s also great about this album is the song writing on this album. Guru really stepped up his rap game on this as if to prove that he wasn’t the weak link in the duo. Guru gives a quite inspiring lyrical performance and is equally responsible to the greatness of this album. It also highlights Guru’s versatility as an emcee. On songs like “She Knows What She Wants”, Guru describes his relationship with a sophisticated gold digger that Guru secretly admires and respects for her drive and ambition despite the fact that she is somewhat shallow and greedy. Guru feels equally at home on tracks like the fierce battle raps like “Next Time” and the classic “You Know My Steez” as he is on more R&B tinged tracks like K-Ci & Jo-Jo assisted “Royalty.” There isn’t a weak song on the entire joint as each song on this both expertly rapped on as it produced. Guru really comes correct on this album.
The first time I heard this record, I was truly stunned. I had always been a fan of Premier’s work on other rapper’s work but I couldn’t say I was a huge Gang Starr fan myself. This record changed that. It gave me a better appreciation of their work and it shed new light on their older material that I truly began to appreciate. Guru has always been considered the Garfunkel to Premier’s Simon but on this record he truly shined and it will give you a better appreciation of Guru’s somewhat monotonous voice and flow. There are so many great songs on this album that it’s quite stunning. “Rep Grows Bigga” serves as a classic sequal to the classic Gang Starr record “Just To Get A Rep”, “Make ‘Em Pay” features a show stopping guest verse from under-appreciated Krumbsnatcha, and “In Memory Of” is a touching eulogy to fallen and deceased hip hop artists and friends lost. And that’s only a fraction of how many great songs there are on this record.
This should have served as the final Gang Starr record as there is a finality to this record that makes 2003’s The Ownerz completely superfluous and an anti-climatic end to one of hip hop’s great groups. The difference in quality and the time between the records only serves to highlight the fact that time has passed Gang Starr by. They never reached the commercial success of their peers despite defining the New York hip hop song in the ‘90s (which is ironic because neither one of them are actually from New York. Guru is from Boston and Primo’s from Texas). This record is one of my personal all-time favorites and in my opinion one of the top-25 rap albums ever recorded. If you haven’t heard this album yet, you need to go out and buy this. Immediately.