It’s been a minute since I’ve contributed to this site, so it seems fitting that my first post in over year is about the new Gang Starr track, “Family and Loyalty,” featuring J. Cole. The group’s first new music since 2003’s The Ownerz, the song was dropped as a surprise after DJ Premier teased the possibility of a new Gang Starr album on Instagram.
It’s hard to give the song an objective review. The hype around it was massive, even on short notice, considering both Gang Starr’s importance for the genre and Guru’s untimely passing in 2010. It wasn’t like they were retired: Gang Starr was done. So it’s understandable that expectations would be sky-high. The addition of J. Cole created even more buzz and when it dropped the song racked up over a million views on YouTube in a couple of weeks.
In my view, the song doesn’t quite reach the level of classic Gang Starr, but it’s dope nonetheless. It recaptures the distinctive Gang Starr sound without feeling dated. There’s a maturity to the song, as though Guru and Premo had been recording music together for the last 16 years in secret. “Family and Loyalty” doesn’t sound like an unreleased track from an earlier album. This is new music that belongs in 2019.
Individually, each contributor shines. The J.Cole verse is fire, rising to the occasion. The beat is signature Premo, flutes and pianos chopped up and juxtaposed against strings and layered over boom bap drums, with shimmering chimes in the background. The beat starts slowly, and on the first listen I was disappointed because it didn’t have the same assertive, almost aggressive, first impression of a track like Mass Appeal or Work, where you’re snapping your neck right away. But this is what I mean about maturity: this beat is more subtle, creating open spaces for J.Cole and Guru to do their thing. Premo’s restraint is confidence. He knows what he’s doing, and although it takes a minute to catch on, by the end you’ll be nodding too.
And that brings us to Guru’s verses. If anything, “Family and Loyalty” is a stark reminder of Guru’s absence, of the music that he never got to make and that we’ll never hear. Guru grew as an artist throughout his career, and this song is further demonstration of his capacity for evolution. Seriously, name another emcee who released music in the eighties (with covers like this) and can hang with J.Cole today. You can’t. On his first verse, Guru mixes up his flow on almost every line, something I didn’t realize until I read the lyrics. Remembering that he recorded this over a decade ago makes it even more impressive.
Overall, a solid track. If there’s really a Gang Starr album on the way, then this is a good sign of things to come.