Who's Hard?

Artist: Big ShugTitle: Who's Hard?Rating: 4 StarsReviewed by: Paine

On every Gang Starr album since Hard to Earn, Big Shug has been good for at least one pocket-patting verse, and he’s traveled religiously with Guru and Premier on their tours. Despite a string of record contracts spanning 15 years, some unauthorized mixtapes, and singles, Who’s Hard (Sureshot) is Shug’s debut. The Boston-based MC uses this chance to prove he’s more than a body, or thug-rapper, by writing structured raps over some of the finest Premier production in years.

To date, Big Shug is remembered for setting off “The Militia.” Those gully references to boxing, self-defense, and forced entry are very much a part of “Counter Punch.” This song is to boxing what “Throw Ya Gunz” was to firearms – a sure instigator. But while these muscle-driven raps surround the album, Shug goes beyond the norm. “No Mother, No Father,” puts Big Shug’s life out over a piano loop with blushing realness. Though the Shug-sung hook shows flaw, it also serves as a commitment to the emotion he conveys. Other songs, such as “Take it Back” are nowhere near as revealing, or original. As with any 20-song debut, there are things better left on the cutting room floor, but Shug successfully lumps any expectation of a beat-driven album.

Those beats, are certainly an enticing aspect of Who’s Hard?. DJ Premier dedicates himself to half of the album. Primo experiments with new sounds on the choppy “On the Record,” playing with guitar chords. “Bang ‘Em Down,” returns to elaborate scratch-choruses and sound effects. Perhaps the best is the poorly-titled, but remarkable, “Tha 3 Shugs.” Here, Shug separates his verses to describe his identities as MC, thug, and pimp. Shug’s content and delivery varies, which brings the concept alive. If that wasn’t enough, Premier provides three original beats to help the transition. Alchemist also shapes out the lineup with crisp loops, reminiscent of his early Infamous Mobb and Dilated Peoples work.

On “The Planet,” Guru told his story of Gang Starr; on “No Mother, No Father,” Shug tells his. The stories are both intricate and similar. The frustrations of years of setbacks have found their way onto a debut, that also has creative courage. While some concepts are too little too late, Who’s Hard? answers its own question – with a punch.