May 12, 2008

Gangstarr - Step In The Arena (January 15, 1991)


After the mild success of their debut album, No More Mr. Nice Guy, Keith Elam and Chris Martin, who run their lawnmower repair service as Guru and DJ Premier of Gangstarr, were encouraged to release a sophomore effort, Step In The Arena, two years later. They kept the ingredients and measurements the same in the kitchen; only a couple of spices were added, which resulted in an album that sounds like a natural sequel, one that picks up immediately after the first movie ended, such as Friday The 13th Part 2 and Hostel Part II (which sucked, by the way).

Fans of the crew's more recent output will still find themselves shocked at the overall sound of Step In The Arena. Primo hadn't yet perfected the boom-bap that he is best known for today (well, that, and his recipe for oatmeal chocolate chip cookies). I chalk that up to Primo still getting used to living in Boston after being born and raised in Houston, TX; climate changes are a motherfucker. Guru also doesn't sound quite as confrontational as he does today, but he's getting there: he starts to get a tad bit more boastful on Step In The Arena, which makes sense, since all you need is a taste of success to think that you're better than the next guy. Guru would prove his worth as an emcee with Gangstarr's follow-up discs.

Step In The Arena sold moderately well for an album with no obvious radio singles (although some of these songs had to play on the airwaves, I suppose). Fans of No More Mr. Nice Guy certainly snatched it up, but I don't believe that it broke through to other listeners, those who like their hip hop street with a side of love for the ladies. Guru and Primo never adhered to the generic hip hop album blueprint anyway, but I thought it would be appropriate for me to give fair warning before we start listening.

Ready?

1. NAME TAG
A short introductory track, one which doesn't stick around long enough to piss me off. Nice!
2. STEP IN THE ARENA
Whenever I hear that vocal sample repeating "Step up!", I'm always reminded of 2Pac's "I Get Around". This song sounds like an outtake from the No More Mr. Nice Guy sessions, with a tiny bit more hood thrown in for good measure.

3. FORM OF INTELLECT
Guru's overconfidence is on full display here, from the title down to the verses presented. However, overconfidence is a prerequisite to being a rapper in the first place, so his contribution's okay. Primo's beat is, surprisingly, pretty damn dull.

4. EXECUTION OF A CHUMP (NO MORE MR. NICE GUY PT. 2)
You may listen to this disc waiting for Primo to discover his trademark boom-bap sound. Sorry, you two, but his growth as a producer was a natural (and long) process.

5. WHO'S GONNA TAKE THE WEIGHT?
The epitome of the jazzy style that Guru and Premier were still shooting for at the time. This still sounds pretty good today, although I fear the high-pitched sounds will attract dogs to your speakers.

6. BEYOND COMPREHENSION
I'm liking the lyrics, but the beat leaves a lot to be desired. I appreciate that it's just one long verse, though; makes the song seem shorter somehow.

7. CHECK THE TECHNIQUE
This song is pretty fucking awesome. The sampled strings that Primo slices and dices into the instrumental are just the icing on a delicious cake of some sort, possibly yellow cake with chocolate frosting, carried by your girl and a porn actress, who just so happen to be making out with each other while delivering the dessert.

8. LOVESICK
What comes off at first as a tale about Guru being head over heels in love with an unrequited love quickly shifts gears to Keithy E's perspective of a man who is too self-absorbed in his own shit to notice that he's completely neglecting his girl. Pretty good idea for a song, and Primo's beat rocks.

9. HERE TODAY, GONE TOMORROW
When I hear this song, all I can hear in my head is Lo Fidelity Allstars's "Battleflag", thanks to the same sample being utilized in both tracks. That doesn't mean this song is unmemorable, though: far from it. Guru sounds surprisingly menacing over this simple instrumental.

10. GAME PLAN
Just a short interlude at the halfway mark.

11. TAKE A REST
I know that Guru was trying to establish himself as an artist on these first two Gangstarr albums, but you know what may have spiced up the proceedings? A guest star. Big Shug, who was actually part of Gangstarr before leaving the crew right when they exploded on the scene, would sound pretty good trading verses with Keithy E here.

12. WHAT YOU WANT THIS TIME?
Not bad. I like how Primo chops up the sound of a phone ringing at the very beginning.

13. STREET MINISTRY
A one-verse interlude that sounds as pleasant as waves brushing up on the coastline.

14. JUST TO GET A REP
This is one of Guru and Premier's classic tracks for good reason: this is just the perfect marriage of beats and rhymes. If you've followed Gangstarr at all, you've already heard this song, so I won't write any more about it.

15. SAY YOUR PRAYERS
Another one-verse interlude, but this one is barely decent.

16. AS I READ MY S-A
I just listened to this track twice, and I can't remember anything about it.

17. PRECISELY THE RIGHT RHYMES
Not the most energetic beat in Primo's catalog. Even Guru's lyrics seem to be slower that usual, but that's just a trick of the mind.

18. THE MEANING OF A NAME
A quicker-paced ending to the album than you would expect. For some reason, I could only hear Us3's "Cantaloop" while this track played, but I assume that this song was merely the influence of that corny-ass track (which, honestly, I still like today).

FINAL THOUGHTS: Step In The Arena is No More Mr. Nice Guy Pt. 2, but with a slightly richer palette of beats and fully realized rhymes from Guru. The jazzy influences from their debut have only become more overt, and the scratches and drums that Primo is known for now only appear in sparse cameos. If you can look past that, there are a handful of songs that can stand up with their entire body of work, but as an album, Step In The Arena doesn't consistently work, since a lot of the songs blend into each other.

BUY OR BURN? I would recommend a burn, since most of these songs sound alike anyway. Guru and Premier were still finding their way, though, so they're allowed some missteps on their journey. For diehard fans only.

-Max

RELATED POSTS:
Gangstarr - No More Mr. Nice Guy

23 comments:

  1. AnonymousMay 12, 2008

    Premier never lived in Boston.

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  2. AnonymousMay 12, 2008

    Premo lived in Texas and Fuck your bitch ass review. This is no NMNG II. This album is gr8, so fuck yourself, bitch ass cunt!

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  3. It's okay, I don't live in Boston either, and yet, the blog survives. I do find it hilariosu that a Gangstarr review brings out that type of response, especially since, um, the FIRST Gangstarr review garnered exactly two comments as of this writing. Where were you when I actually liked the first album?

    Thanks for reading!

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  4. the most felonious vocalist in the wide world of showbusinessMay 12, 2008

    Not too many groups are given a chance to develop over the course of their first two retail albums in today's rap business. I doubt we would have ever been able to bask in Premo's brilliance if Gangstarr had debuted after 1996. Unless he had a really hot Myspace page.

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  5. AnonymousMay 12, 2008

    Nice review Max. I always didn't think that this stood the test of time. Unfortunetly some songs on it simply sound dated. Gang Starr to me didn't hit their formula till Daily Operations.

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  6. The beginning of Primo's 90's takeover. This is my girlfriend's favorite Gangstarr album and she plays it all the time when I'm in her car. To say it's a step up from their first album is a ridiculous understatement. Primo and Keithy E went back to the lab with a box of blunts, some brews and left the Group Home at the group home for our sakes. It still sounds great today.

    Vincent
    thimk.wordpress.com

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  7. AnonymousMay 13, 2008

    good review, have our ears and perception of things really changed that much since we got older?...I am turning into my parents... I thought this album was greatwhen I was 13, but now...

    mr. childs

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  8. To hell with that, my friends. If you must “steal from your mother’s purse” to buy Jay-Z’s (overrated) Blueprint, spend the $5.00 change and pick up a used copy of Step In The Arena. In fact, go to your local Record and Tape Traders and drop the $15.00 if you must. This album deserves it. Much respect to Max, HHID and it’s contributors.

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  9. MRFATSACMay 13, 2008

    Max is a cum guzzling homo!

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  10. AnonymousMay 24, 2008

    yep i agree, you dont have a clue mate you sound like some posh kid who only likes hip hop because of your peers are probably into it, or because you think it makes you look/sound tuff. you either get it or you dont, and you DONT, go back to listening to house you fucking bell end.

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  11. That is by far the funniest comment I've ever read on this blog, and I do read every single one. I would actually be insulted by your 'posh kid that doesn't have a clue' comment if I truly gave a fuck what you thought! Thanks for reading!

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  12. the most felonious vocalist in the wide world of showbusinessJune 13, 2008

    Sadly, I read every comment too.

    What's a bell end? Is there an online reference center for Australian(?) insults? Right now, I'm figuring it refers to the diameter of one's bunghole. If you ain't homophobic, then you don't know shit about rap music!

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  13. Always thought I was alone in thinking this was a great album, at least a couple of people seem to agree :)

    My favorite Gangstarr album, wore my cassette out from over use. Very easy to listen to from start to finish.

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  14. i always loved this album, one of the first hiphop albums i picked up.
    One of my all time favourite lines on there too: "if the beat was a princess i would marry it "

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  15. I hadn't read this yet...

    Its strange that you would suggest a burn, after kind of liking the whole album.

    I suggest someone read this, buy it and forget about Max's suggestion.

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  16. max you don't know shit about hip hop faggot

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  17. I don't understand how you recommend No More Mr. Nice guy and not this. This is a classic, must buy people.

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  18. AnonymousJuly 21, 2009

    burn¿? burn your fucking head man..

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  19. AnonymousJuly 04, 2010

    So a quick search reveals that 2pac's I get Around was from 1993.

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  20. o like both but dont uderstand why a burn on this and a buy on "no more mr nice guy" when this is a better example of older, jazzier primo? wouldnt you be better buying this and burning no more mr nice guy?

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  21. Huh, just noticed you forgot to do the 'Best Tracks' list here.

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  22. This album blew peoples minds when it was released,Premier's jazzy production and scratching was fucking ill on this album, and Guru dropped some dope intelligent rhymes. One of hip hop's truly great albums R.I.P. Guru.

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  23. what? where's the best tracks?

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