Happy 10th Anniversary to Pete Rock’s third solo studio album NY’s Finest, originally released February 26, 2008.
Pete Rock had it good in the ‘90s. As one of the creators of the boom bap sound he was constantly in demand for his original production and an extensive list of remixes. He was also half of one of hip-hop’s most beloved duos, alongside C.L. Smooth. The production work and acclaim continued through the end of the decade and into the new millennium, although his partnership with C.L. Smooth was by then largely defunct. No longer able to get top billing, confined to only appearing in liner notes, the logical move was to start making full-length production albums, which he did in 1998 with Soul Survivor.
This type of album can be tricky to get right. If you cram too many vocalists into the tracklist, the end product can feel like a mixtape rather than an album proper. Conversely, going the full instrumental route can bring critical acclaim but less commercial success.
Fortunately, for someone as naturally talented as Pete Rock, it’s possible to craft both albums with and without vocals, and do so effortlessly. The feature-packed Soul Survivor was followed by the appropriately-titled Petestrumentals in 2001, Soul Survivor II in 2004, and The Surviving Elements: From Soul Survivor II Sessions in 2005. Rock was therefore alternating between vocal and instrumental projects, which meant that next would be one with vocals, and it arrived in 2008 in the shape of NY’s Finest.
The title works on two levels. The first is an obvious one: Rock is without doubt among New York’s finest musicians and a hip-hop innovator. He may not originate from Brooklyn or the Bronx, but Mount Vernon is only a stone’s throw from the latter. And anyway, DJ Premier is from Texas.
The second meaning of the title sets the agenda for the selection of guest emcees. Whereas Soul Survivor I and II had features from rappers across the map, NY’s Finest is heavy with artists from the five boroughs and New Jersey. There are two notable exceptions: “Bring Y'all Back” features Little Brother, and Slum Village appear on “Gangsta Boogie” (a bonus track on some digital versions). It blows the concept of it being a showcase or the finest rappers from New York, but a detour to North Carolina and Detroit is fine when it takes in groups as good as these.
In addition to the NYC connection, the line-up includes rappers with commercial appeal such as Sheek and Styles P of The Lox (“914”), and Jim Jones (“We Roll”), alongside independent heroes link Roc Marciano (“It's So G,” on the deluxe version), and ‘90s acts Lords of the Underground and Royal Flush (“The Best Secret” and “Questions”). It’s a line Rock has walked throughout his celebrated career—happy to be an iconic torchbearer for boom bap, but able to broaden his appeal when a JAY-Z or a Kanye West come knocking.
Although never the strongest lyricist, relatively speaking, Rock raps extensively on the album himself, including the solo tracks “Till I Retire” and “Don’t Be Mad.” Both are among his better vocal appearances, although they are delivered with a huge chip on the shoulder. The lyrics are in a similar vein to songs made eight years earlier by another genius producer with only mediocre rap skills, Dr. Dre, on “Forgot About Dre” from his 1999 album 2001 and the N.W.A reunion “Hello” featured on Ice Cube’s War & Peace Volume 2 (The Peace Disc) (2000). Both artists are angry at something, perhaps a perceived questioning of their ability this late in their careers. It all seems very unnecessary, and hard to imagine anyone ever doubted two of the absolute greatest producers in rap history.
One slightly contentious thing about NY’s Finest is some of the sample choices. Rock is one of the pioneers of sampling in hip-hop, and has often spoken of how he comes from an era when producers avoided samples used by others, as that was considered biting (copying). Interesting then that he should use a sample of “Gangster Boogie” by Chicago Gangsters on the aptly-named “Gangsta Boogie”—a song that has been used elsewhere more than 70 times. “Ready Fe War” meanwhile samples Ini Kamoze’s “World-A-Music” and “Pass The Dutchie” by Musical Youth, both used many times in other songs. But these are minor points on what is an overall solid album from Rock.
Those with a sharp eye may recognize the cover art; a tribute to the 1974 Hell album by one of Rock’s heroes and biggest influences, James Brown. It was a continuation of a theme started with Soul Survivor II, which has a cover paying homage to the artwork of Miles Davis’ 1986 album Tutu.
Rock continued alternating between vocal and instrumental projects with the album that followed NY’s Finest, 2015’s Petestrumentals 2. If the pattern holds, this means another album with guest emcees should be up next and is reported to be on the way at some point. If it can match NY’s Finest, it will be another worthy addition to the catalog of this truly incredible producer.