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.