Don’t take your eyes off Pete Rock. The early-‘90s albums he produced with rapper CL Smooth still live in legend; recent reports suggest the New York duo are reuniting for their first new music since Nas dropped Illmatic. This pair, like their contemporaries A Tribe Called Quest, weren’t about to go back into the studio just because fans wanted them to. Rock may be the golden-age god whose snap-n-crack boom bap helped spawn J Dilla, Mark Ronson, and Kanye West, but take a look at the names that make up Rock’s recent client list—Torae, Grafh, Snyp Life—and it’s clear that he’s less interested in collecting checks than he is crowding his orbit with hard-nosed hip-hop.
On Don’t Smoke Rock—Rock’s first full-length collaboration since 2011’s Monumental with Smif-N-Wessun—his anointed partner is Smoke DZA. Their album plays like a wintertime drive through Harlem in a Bentley with black-tinted windows, and they swerve together with pure confidence. It especially suits DZA; a prolific working MC with blunted flow and to-the-point storytelling skills, he has struggled to distinguish himself in the crowded world of NYC street rap revivalists. Though he might not possess the crackling lyrical loops of Action Bronson, the bitter wordplay of Ka, or the flashy sheen of brothers Westside Gunn and Conway, the Harlemite’s throwback cadences are a solid foil for the uptown cool of Rock’s crisp soul samples and tough drums.
On “Wild 100s,” the producer takes the kind of double bass that Brian Wilson once harnessed in his pop symphonies, and he compresses them into a tense, energetic rap beat. “Hold the Drums” deletes all percussion; Rock instead fills the soundscapes with an angelic piano and voice sample on top of some skilled record scratches, as DZA wistfully nods to the past (“Mama had me rockin’ bucket hats when I was a year old”). His boasts can sound off-the-shelf (“Hop on a joint with me, it’s manslaughter,” he spits on “Wild 100s”), but his flow has charm and anchors Rock’s instrumentals. “Show Off” is the kind of New York anthem Jay Z sketched out on The Blueprint, and the peppy horns of “Dusk 2 Dusk” reimagines uptown as an off-the-billboard utopia.
The project is bolstered by some well-deployed guest spots, too. Cam’ron delivers one of his strongest verses in years on the drug tale “Moving Weight Pt. I,” a scene straight out of a David Simon TV drama. Spotting cops on the corner, Cam considers the possibility he may need to blast his way out of trouble. He feels for his pistol and rubs the bulletproof vest under his cardigan, pausing to deliver some tongue-twisting surrealism (“Bad bitches in the tub, tell ‘em they all luck-ay/Grab me a condom, gave her the rubber duck-ay”). Rick Ross seems an unlikely pick for Rock’s natty stylings, but his husky voice isn’t its usual wrecking ball on the opulent strings of “Black Superhero Car.” And while Jadakiss and Styles P have a spotty history on other people’s tracks, they’re effective on the bitter ballad “Milestone,” slipping into the role of two salty veterans sadly surveying the past.
This year, Tribe made an album that was grandiose, politically engaged, haunted by loss, and one of the year’s finest. But Pete Rock and Smoke DZA have forged something we still need, too: a great, modest New York rap album of concrete beats and blood-in-your-mouth bars. We await the reunion with CL Smooth with interest.