Since his pioneering early-’90s work with C.L. Smooth, Pete Rock has bolstered his legacy with a stream of solo albums and production credits that have affirmed him as one of hip-hop’s most respected, enduring architects. Smif-n-Wessun’s recent career hasn’t been nearly as prestigious. The Brooklyn duo never topped its 1995 debut Dah Shinin,’ a marvel of brass-knuckled jazz-rap, and even that album hasn’t been passed down to new listeners like other classics of the era. It’s easy to see, then, why Smif-n-Wessun rappers Tek and Steele are so concerned with their legacy on Monumental, their first collaboration with Pete Rock. With the chorus of rap enthusiasts that once extolled them dwindled to just a few true believers, Tek and Steele use their most high-profile album in ages to trumpet their own greatness, lauding themselves not just as decorated lifers, but as “pioneers and pathfinders,” in the words of the grandiose John F. Kennedy speech that opens the album.
Though Pete Rock shares Smif-n-Wessun’s fondness for jazz and reggae, his beats shine brighter than the hardened murk they usually favor, and his production on Monumental is exultant even by his standards. Breaking from the mellowed trances of his past work, Rock’s latest beats are grander, less locked in a set groove, and more intent on dazzling. Because his production is so dominant, Monumental feels more like a Pete Rock album than a Smif-n-Wessun album, and like Rock’s solo records, it’s packed tight with guest spots.
Raekwon and Bun B share short but exceptional verses on “Prevail” and “Feel Me,” respectively, while major-label castoffs Memphis Bleek, Freeway, Styles P, and Black Rob all take to Rock’s accommodating beats with similar flair. Never the flashiest rappers, Tek and Steele are in fine form, too, but between Rock’s ravishing production and the menagerie of hungry guests, they’re often overshadowed, which makes Monumental a bittersweet victory. Smif-n-Wessun’s best album since Dah Shinin’ is more a testament to their producer than themselves.