Review: Albums

Guru’s Jazzmatazz

“”Streetsoul””

MCA Records

C-

Quite a few years back, Anheuser-Busch mounted a huge ad campaign in an attempt to promote responsible drinking. The centerpiece of its campaign was a brilliant slogan that ultimately became embedded in America’s collective national consciousness. It went something like this: “”Know when to say when.”” Now, I must admit I do not know whether this product of marketing genius was effective for its intended purpose.

In any case, I believe that this phrase should be taken to heart by all, and it should not be exclusively applied to responsible alcohol consumption. It should also be directed toward the continuous, inexcusable production of potentially great — but ultimately mediocre — hip-hop recordings. Guru’s latest Jazzmatazz endeavor is an excellent example of this sad trend.

Let’s be brutally honest for a minute. Everyone knows that Guru has never been a very good MC, but for some reason many people seem hesitant to admit it. Why is that? What do people think they owe him? It is well past time for this shameful facade to end. MCing is a continuously evolving art form, and few can argue that Guru merely has not kept up with the times.

For the most part, Guru’s lyrics these days are inane and uninspired, and his flow is often nonexistent. His trademark deadpan voice used to be novel, but now it’s just annoying. He is exceedingly arrogant regarding his so-called “”skills”” on the mic, although in most cases it is painfully obvious that if he didn’t have Premiere backing him up, he never would have blown up in the first place.

This is not to discredit him entirely, of course. As a part of Gang Starr, Guru has made a significant contibution to hip-hop as a whole, but that’s because Gang Starr was a formulaic success that focused and relied mainly on Premiere’s beats and production.

Mr. “”Gifted Unlimited Rhymes Universal”” may have been somewhat lyrically impressive on “”Words I Manifest,”” but he hasn’t progressed much since then. All of this might sound too harsh, but it’s readily apparent. Just consider your favorite Gang Starr tracks from past albums. Odds are, they’re the cuts with the special guests who shined while Guru did his best to avoid ruining the whole damn thing.

Now, to Guru’s credit, it should be noted that his first Jazzmatazz album was certainly innovative, groundbreaking and relatively well-done. It spawned a number of commercially successful singles, while stretching rap, R&B and jazz in whole new directions.

The problem is that Guru hasn’t been able to follow it up, because he’s been too busy promoting himself on the two subsequent Jazzmatazz albums, this one included. On “”Jazzmatazz Vol. 1,”” his vocals seemed to blend almost seamlessly with the guest artist contributions, and more often than not, his vocals were appropriate to the song’s subject.

This is not the case any more. Lately, Guru’s incessant demand for respect seems to be sabotaging his art, with every other verse or skit on Streetsoul talking about how great he is, whether it’s a would-be revolutionary anthem like “”Lift Your Fist”” (featuring the Roots) or a supposed seductive love ballad like “”Night Vision”” (with Isaac Hayes). Simply put, his self-aggrandizing rhymes ruin almost every collaboration on this album — especially the ones that would have been definite hits if he just toned it down a little.

Maybe that’s why I’ve been so hard on Guru here; it’s just too disappointing to hear so many collaborations with respected artists like the Roots, Isaac Hayes and Herbie Hancock go down the toilet thanks to Guru’s insipid vocals. The potential was there, and there are a few bright spots on this album, but for the most part, this album is a huge letdown. Friends shouldn’t let friends pick this one up.

— Sky Frostenson


PJ Harvey

“”Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea””

Island Records

A

PJ Harvey recently moved to New York and then she wrote an album about it. “”Stories from the City, Stories From the Sea,”” Harvey’s latest release on Island Records is littered with references to the Manhattan skyline. Against the backdrop of “”The Empire State Building,”” Harvey traces a love affair that blooms “”on a rooftop in Brooklyn,”” and then wilts on the album’s mournful last track.

“”Stories”” is one of those albums you have to listen to from start to finish. It is like a novel and it tells a story. The album begins with Harvey longing for “”a different land”” in “”Big Exit.”” Harvey and her mysterious companion discover New York with wide-eyed wonderment and fearless enthusiasm, like two tourists who just got a hotel room overlooking Central Park. But their love does not last forever. After the glitter of New York fades, Harvey and her lover go their separate ways as the album concludes with “”Horses in My Dreams”” and finally “”We Float.””

Musically, “”Stories”” is more accessible than past PJ Harvey albums. In the past, Harvey’s sense of melody could have been hard to take in. However, “”Stories”” offers a mix of experimental melodies as well as tunes that will have you singing along in your car. The optimistic “”Good Fortune”” sounds oddly reminiscent of Liz Phair’s “”Exile in Guyville,”” while “”This Mess We’re In,”” on which Radiohead’s Thom Yorke adds vocals, is classic Harvey.

Harvey has created an amazing album that has the depth of great literature and the drama of a good movie. “”Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea”” is enough to make you want to hop on a plane and go find New York for yourself.

— Lindsay Boyd