Gang Starr 

The Ownerz (Virgin)

It shouldn't be a surprise that these are hard times for survivors of hip-hop's golden age. The genre, with its gaze turned ever forward and a built-in impatience for the past, gives no quarter to legends such as Public Enemy, KRS-One and Prince Paul. Besides LL Cool J, the only other act from that era still linked to the mainstream is Gang Starr. But can the most sophisticated hardcore duo ever survive, at a time when great rhymes are optional but pop hooks essential?

Of course they can. In fact, The Ownerz sounds like the most potent challenge yet to hip-hop's perpetual youth cult: We invented this shit, we're doing it the old way and you're gonna like it. Premier's rich, detailed beats, still oozing soul warmth, have hardly changed. Nor have Guru's articulate declarations of discipline ("Deadly Habitz") and thug humanity ("Nice Girl, Wrong Place"). The only track that could be judged a calculated appeal to the kids -- the Jadakiss duet "Rite Where U Stand" -- is also a rugged throwdown that brings out the best in each MC.

By its very nature, hip-hop still rebels against the notion of classic rock -- performers who latch onto a signature sound and dole it out periodically to grateful fans. This album will go a long way toward weakening that resistance.

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