Gang Starr's second album, turning 25 today, is a low-key classic.
Daily Operation, released on this day in 1992, is sandwiched between two more noteworthy eras in Gang Starr's career. The first is the revolutionary jazz rap of 1991's Step in the Arena, an album that made DJ Premier one of the most in-demand producers in hip hop and Guru, with his ability to stay grounded over squealing free jazz instrumentals, one of the most respected MCs. The second is the high-octane Moment Of Truth and an ensuing greatest hits album, the duo's comeback/final chapter that contains every Gang Starr song you've ever heard on TV or in a modern-day smoke sesh: "Above The Clouds," "Work," and "Full Clip" chief among those. Gang Starr came up as the standard-bearers of jazz rap and exited the game with hits to their name, but what was happening in between might have been more interesting, if less newsworthy.
On the surface to a 2017 listener, Daily Operation might sound like your typical '90s East Coast album, with laid back beats based around R&B and jazz, flows that are still direct Rakim descendants, and a verbose, slightly uptight MC. This isn't an album that'll blow you away with a banger. Instead, it's a methodical, detail-oriented workout that directly influenced the way East Coast hip hop sounded and East Coast MCs rapped for years to come.
Premo might've seemed like he was pushing the envelope more on Step into the Arena, what with his flips of dissonant Maceo Parker and Billy Cobham records, but his toned-down approach on Daily Operation skillfully uses minimalism to achieve similarly avant-garde ends. Opener "The Place Where We Dwell" solely consists of a two-bar Buddy Rich drum break and some vocal samples; the main melodic element on "Flip The Script" is looped crowd noise; "I'm The Man" is a Five-Fingers-of-Death style epic of beat changeups; "Take It Personal" sees his first use of the subtly detuned keyboards he'd later perfect on Jeru The Damaja's The Sun Rises in the East. Daily Operation is a masterclass in sampling, showing that you can use the smallest, most unassuming snippets of music (or even sounds) as fuel for entire songs, so long as you loop them creatively and can scratch like a pro. Premo was still a few years away from his best, most recognizable beats, but the biggest noticeable leap in his talent came between the previous Gang Starr album and this one.
Not to be outdone, Guru also considerably steps his game up from Step in the Arena. This being the early '90s and not the late 2010s, it's not his flows that necessarily evolved that much (though his dextrous rapping on the 6/8 time signature of "Stay Tuned" is very impressive from that standpoint), but rather the subtleties of his wordplay and the pacing of his delivery. His main goal on the album seems to be proving his superiority over every other rapper currently working, often saying things like, "Your diction is jumbled where as me, I'm conveying clear thoughts," but he doesn't even need to pause for those put-downs to prove his prowess. He's one of the first rappers to devote so much focus to internal rhymes like, "Brave is the knave who steps up to be slayed/By the one who forgave him for his first mistakes," but rarely get wrapped up in nonsensical "lyrical spiritual miracle" bars. He'll rhyme "fresh-dipped gear" with "savoir faire," deliver laugh-out-loud punchlines like, "Did you come to my show or to the stupid n**** playoffs?", and destroy your entire career with a "Some disperse then dissolve, like specs of dirt," all without batting an eyelash or letting his voice rise above a smooth deadpan. No one made it look easier than Guru did.
There is a side of Guru that hasn't aged that well, and that's a jaded, pessimistic bent that seems premature given that he was only three albums into Gang Starr's career at this point. Hip hop was just starting to get corporatized at the time of Daily Operation's release, so Guru's sentiment towards label execs and the crossover artists that they woo is understandable, but with the direction that the genre's gone in the 25 years since, his grouchy position seems premature. "Hardcore Composer" might contain the first known utterance of the term "real rap" on wax, and his aforementioned barb about wack MCs' jumbled diction sounds eerily like the "mumble rap" debates that rage on today. The main issue is this: Guru already proves he's better than 99% of other rappers by just flat-out rapping, so when he hammers the point home with holier-than-thou sentiments, it just feels like overkill. As they tell writers in school: show, don't tell.
Nevertheless, Daily Operation is a ridiculously impressive tour de force whichever way you spin it. The fact that Premo and Guru already felt like they had to tighten up their styles and defend their positions in 1992 shows us how fast hip hop moved even in the pre-internet era-- it's insane that they already sounded like elder statesmen before Nas or The Wu-Tang Clan even released albums. This album is the type of low-key classic that the genre rarely sees anymore because of our obsession with new trends and our need for music to wow us upon first listen, lest it get lost in the sands of streaming services when something new pops up next week. I'm usually the furthest thing from a luddite, but it does sadden me that a subtle, pared-down approach like this is a rarity nowadays. In some ways, Daily Operation is the anti-event album, an LP that feels like its grooves are well-worn and homey upon first listen, and one that keeps revealing new little wrinkles of brilliance with every listen.