Hard to Earn
You can bet that the members of Gang Starr have worn out a few Gil Scott-Heron albums in their day. Scott-Heron was rapping before hip hop became either fashionable or marketable, and the music that he put to his words of wisdom was derived from the very jazz roots that have been rediscovered by Guru, Gang Starr's voice of choice, and other samplers who're already sick of plumbing the P-Funk catalogue. But while Scott-Heron's new recording continues in the same vein as the work he's done over the past decade, Gang Starr is showing signs of abandoning the jazz-rap field that US 3 and other practitioners of the form have been busily plowing. In fact, Hard to Earn is thoroughly old school. Guru and DJ Premier load the wheels of steel with Eighties beats, not riffs from past Blue Note artists--and thanks to surprisingly spare production, the result often sounds more like mid-period Public Enemy than last year's slinky, insinuating Guru solo disc, Jazzmatazz, Volume 1. As for the lyrics, they seem designed to re-establish Guru's hardcore reputation, which thanks to his recent musical experimentation has taken a beating of late. He doesn't totally abandon humanism for rock-the-glock banter--"Tonz O' Gunz" actually makes an argument for ghetto disarmament--but too much of the material here sounds like a capitulation to street trends that Scott-Heron rightly criticizes. For example, Scott-Heron's "Message to the Messengers" (Spirits' lead track) offers fatherly advice to the Ice Cubes of the world: "Tell all them gun-totin' young brothers," he says, "that the man is glad to see us out there killin' each other." There's plenty more smart talk here as well, from the three-part epic "The Other Side" to "Work for Peace," which offers a history of the military industrial complex from the Eisenhower era to the present. Scott-Heron sometimes overstates his cases, and on "Lady's Song," a bizarre excursion into Barry White territory, he misses the boat entirely, but the majority of his latest provides a convincing argument for sticking to your guns. Figuratively speaking, that is.--Michael Roberts
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Welcome to the Cruel World
As he weaves together acoustic resonance and mellow jive, Ben Harper evokes the same nomadic feel as Ry Cooder's soundtrack to Paris, Texas. But while Cooder's music, with its hot, dry, scratchy guitar, led nowhere (it was part of the landscape), Harper's concerns his search for an escape: "Welcome to the cruel world," he sings. "Hope you find your way." A few of his songs ("Like a King," for example) are too self-serving, but his acoustic slide still pulls you into the blase desperation of his lyrics. Moreover, "I'll Rise," from a poem by Maya Angelou, shines with at least a glimmer of hope. Even after listening to an album's worth of Harper trying to convince you that there's no way out--that even heaven is cruel--it's difficult to take him seriously.--Jack Jackson
It would be easy to use colorfully pat adjectives to describe Soundgarden's version of heavy metal--"riff-laden," "powerful" and "exotic" come to mind. But to rely on the same vocabulary used to characterize music made by bands such as Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath two decades ago would hardly do this act justice. After all, Chris Cornell and the boys do the Seventies hard-rock thing infinitely better than either of those two outfits--and they manage to say something meaningful in the process. So with that in mind, let it be said that this disc, Soundgarden's fifth, is the group's most gripping effort to date. There are many highlights among the fifteen cuts, but perhaps the best is "The Day I Tried to Live," in which Cornell belts out the amusingly existential line "The lives we make/Never seem to ever get us anywhere/But dead." That's pretty heady stuff for a band written off by some as Seventies retro. Clearly, Soundgarden is more than that: These players draw from familiar influences but create from them fascinating music that makes a genuine connection with today's listeners. For performers who play folk, country and jazz (genres that have been around long enough to establish a tangible sense of tradition), this would be considered progress, but that's not true in the pop-music world. Which, as it applies to Soundgarden, means a big loss for those who don't know how to read between the lines.--Brad Jones