Hip-Hop Jazz Messenger: Back to the Future, Guru’s fourth offering in his Jazzmatazz series, is consistent with its title and its predecessors in that there’s an emphasis on the fusion between jazz and hip-hop. But even though there is indeed experimentation throughout, the strongest songs here are the straight-up hip-hop tracks, not the attempts to transcend genre classification. Considering that he is among the best emcees in the game, it seems unnecessary for Guru to make a forced effort to be nuanced.
The album sees its share of the classic monotone style Guru trademarked during his time with DJ Premier in Gang Starr. It’s produced by Solar and features a bevy of guest appearances, and Guru carries his weight for most of this record. “State of Clarity” is a predictably satisfying collaboration with Common, who sets the album on course with verses on par with his solo work. “Look to the Sun” and “Connection” show Guru at his best, rhyming in his legendary style. Closer “Living Legend,” with saxophonist David Sanborn, encapsulates the best elements of the Jazzmatazz project: Guru doing his thing to the tune of an established jazz musician.
But the intended purpose of fusing jazz into the album comes up short in tracks featuring Damien “Junior Gong” Marley, Bobby Valentino and Vivian Green. And the nature of the collaborations limits Guru’s input to less than half of each track. He may be at his best “with my monotone style/ because I don’t need gimmicks,” but one glance at the guest artists (the album also features Blackalicious and Slum Village, among others) raises the question of whether or not he is resorting to them anyway.