Kanye West declared himself the “new version of Pete Rock.” But Pete Rock is not ready to be relegated to forefather status just yet. “NY’s Finest,” his sixth solo album, intends to send the message, “Wrong, Kanye: Pete Rock is the new Pete Rock.” He is still an original, even if one who’s beginning to sound a bit tired.
Pete Rock has been in the music industry since the late 80s, and one of the top hip-hop producers since the 90s. And the album cover of “NY’s Finest,” an homage to James Brown’s “Hell,” clearly displays his nostalgia and intent to reclaim hip hop. On this album, Pete Rock mixes tried rappers like Redman and Wu-Tang Clan’s Raekwon with fresh faces like Royal Flush. Rock also gets behind the mic on a few tracks, rhyming better than some of his guest artists.
However, after 20 years in the game, Pete’s beats are beginning to sound stale, and “NY’s Finest” is an inferior rehash of his first solo album, “Soul Survivor.” The beats are still good, but Rock fails to bring in emcees who could give the album any edge. On tracks like “We Roll,” anyone could stand in for Jim Jones without there being a discernible difference. This is partially due to the strength of Rock as a producer, but also due to the unremarkable rhymes of most of his guests.
On “Till I Retire,” a declaration that he is still in the game, Rock establishes his intent to reclaim creativity in hip hop, whose “heart supposedly stopped.” Regardless, he makes the frustrating choice to play it safe. This is apparently his “finest.” However, it does not live up to its promises. With a couple exceptions, the rappers he has chosen have faded into obscurity — or never risen from it. The best rapping comes on the track “Bring Y’all Back” from Little Brother, who aren’t even from New York.
There are still the characteristics of Pete Rock there: layered samples from other genres like jazz and funk, soulful brass and a cadre of guest emcees. The combination comes together as cohesive tracks a couple times. One is the aforementioned “Bring Y’all Back,” on which Little Brother drops lines like, “If the words didn’t rhyme, would it still be rap?” A follow-up question: If there’s a tuba in the background, would it still be rap?
In sticking to what he knows, Pete Rock no longer sounds current. Hip hop has changed since the early 90s, and with people stepping up to replace him, Pete Rock needs to do more than what he has already done. Rather, Rock imitates an earlier version of himself, flipping the same beats with less skill than before.
The reggae track “Ready Fe War” breaks up the flow of “NY’s Finest.” The only memorable things about it are that it is too long and has a one-minute intro about “bumbaclots.” Aside from this slapdash attempt at diversifying the album’s sound, there is nothing terrible about “NY’s Finest.” There are the familiar themes of police abuse, oppression and the state of hip hop. Those beats that fail, such as on “Made Man,” fail gently.
Pete Rock does nothing to call into question his rightful place in hip hop history. But he does nothing to prove he is still relevant in 2008, either.