By Lindsey Rhoades
By Chaz Kangas
By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Jena Ardell
By Jesse Sendejas Jr.
By Katherine Turman
By Steve Weinstein
By Araceli Cruz
Pete Rock "reminisces" at least five times over the course of NY's Finest. On "Best Believe," after Redman coasts on charisma and a sea-creature malaprop, Rock disdains "bubble-gum rap, with a soda on the side." The Mount Vernon producer—"classic since Rakim was rockin' a fade"—has emerged to give his calm, assertive flow its most extensive workout in years, and tries to toughen things up even as he recasts the hip-hop past he helped create in alternately fond and chippy terms: "There was a point in time me, Puff, Eddie, and C.L. was friends," he notes. "I ain't Rodney King, so I don't care if we get along."
He's moved on from his old gear, too. Once synonymous with SP1200 drum-machine soul splices, Rock's now a "poster boy for the MPC." New toy, same sentiment: Here, only the aqueous bleeps of "Til I Retire" reek of a crisper, cleaner aesthetic not down-sampled back to Rock's '90s grit. He even recycles. Recognize the stuttering siren sound on "914"? Courtesy of ESG's rap-worn "UFO," previously flipped for "Mecca and the Soul Brother." That 1991 cut with former partner C.L. Smooth predated their eponymous peak LP and offered peaceful braggadocio: "Claim you shoot more rounds than an Uzi/Stop the violence, cause ya can't do me." But just as "914" ditches its predecessor's warm horn refrain, Finest's oft-punishing guest verses rarely fuss with goodwill. Styles P sums it up: "I might come through with the Uzi/Shoot niggas, film it on Fuji."
Content-Agnostic: a pragmatic producer's religion. But lyrical contradiction rings falser from Rock's own mouth. "Ready Fe War," his chameleonic raggaffectation, is sincere. But elsewhere, the same mild-mannered dude who's "not here to ice grill or gun fight" rhyming wars with whores, or cheerleading gun-clap applause with Dipset? "Bring Y'all Back" sells menace more nimbly with a fat, string-leavened tuba. Which is why it's easy to forgive Rock's tough-guy mic folly: His ego's still mostly wrapped up in matters of MPC prowess. "We Roll" doubles as Sabbath hangover salve and an invitation to get faded before noon. Never mind Dipset's mush-mouthed Max B—an emphysema-choked geriatric would've sounded smooth over those sunny Kool & the Gang synths. Finest is at its finest when the beats ride out wordlessly, and bloodlessly.