Everything comes full circle. Or does it?
In 1994, about a minute into the G-funk gangsta-rap era, Common
dropped his classic “I Used to Love H.E.R (Hip-hop in its Essence and
Real).” Metaphorically comparing hip-hop to an old love, Common told
the story of a girl gone wild, made impure by the commercial appeal of
Southern California’s low-ridin’ set-claimin’ gangstas. He yearned for
the old-school, Afro-centric, black power days he shared with H.E.R,
talking about how hip-hop was more politically and socially aware of
the harsh and changing times for black Americans. A decade removed,
many rappers have tried to “Friendster” their old flame in hopes of
getting back together with H.E.R. In his latest release, Soul Survivor II — the follow-up to his debut solo album, 1998’s Soul Survivor — Pete Rock can’t quite put this question down either and attempts to bring H.E.R back with a dose of “soul.”
Rock arrived in a hip-hop moment that coincided with the conservative
workings of Reaganomics. As a result of the (im)balancing of the budget
that lead to the neglect and erase of urban (often black) communities,
some hip-hop artists tried to maintain awareness through lyrics and
sounds that came from the “souls” of these urban communities. Rock
often found the perfect beat in blending obscure jazz, funk and soul
samples that accentuated the messages by his soul brother partner C.L.
Smooth. On “T.R.O.Y (They Reminisce Over You)” and “Straighten It Out,”
the multi-layered horns along with C.L. Smooth’s lyrics seemed to make
you feel harder the experiences of urban turbulence, loss and
elevation. Rock has survived to see hip-hop age through the gangsta,
Bad Boy, and current Jacob the Jeweler dynasties, but Survivor II shows a gradual shift in style that is a slight semblance of his previous rhythms.
This time around, Rock takes a more indie approach. The
Chocolate Boy Wonder teams with a group of A-list indies, including the
Native Tongue movement-inspired Talib Kweli, Slum Village, Little
Brother, Jay Dee, the lyrically creative Pharoah Monch and the more
militant Dead Prez to name a few. But they fail to catch the beat of
hip-hop’s more inspired yesteryear.
Attempts at reviving hip-hop’s politicized sensibilities and neighborhood watching are sometimes available on Survivor II,
but often come off as didactic. Instead of creating a more united idea
of a hip-hop nation, Pete Rock and his host of emcees take aim at
what’s wrong with artists today. On “Truth Is,” spoken-word artist
Black Ice sets the tone by claiming how black artists set themselves up
to be bamboozled by the industry. “We Good” with Kardinall Offishall
and “Just Do It” with Pharoah Monche feature uninspiring lyrics
scolding rapper’s bling mentality over equally uninspiring and
On “Beef,” we start to hear a more vintage Pete Rock sound,
with a darker mood set off by creeping pianos and flute-y synths. But
Krumbsnatcha does not quite fit the feeling with the banal hook, as he
rhymes: “Ya’ll don’t want beef/ Ya’ll don’t want that/ Get caught up in
these streets/ Get shot up by these heats.” This makes you wonder what
how much hotter Mos Def’s “Beef” might have been if he hooked up with
Pete Rock instead.
The brighter moments on this album don’t come when people are being
called out, but when Pete Rock is giving out hugs. On “Appreciate” with
C.L. Smooth, “Give it to You” and “No Tears,” Pete Rock shows us that
he’s not looking for ordinary love on that we-are-the-world type vibe.
The texture of these songs shows he’s not just looking for
understanding; he’s trying to make change.
Saving hip-hop is a huge task that Pete Rock and his collaborations don’t quite accomplish on Survivor II. With a resume as thick as Luke dancers, Survivor II
disappoints with few tracks showing much crate potential. Pete Rock is
unable to resurrect his soulful style in his one-night stand with
H.E.R., but it’s nice to know some people still care.