Following the dissolution of his partnership with C.L. Smooth in the mid-'90s, Pete Rock retained his place atop the pantheon of hip-hop's greatest and most influential producers, while Smooth essentially disappeared, popping up now and then for a guest spot before fading back into obscurity. Smooth's honeyed voice and silky presence would seem to ensure at least a middling solo career, but he's been nothing without Rock at his side. So it's good news for Smooth and Rock fans alike that Soul Survivor II features a mini-Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth reunion, which proves that time apart has done nothing to dull the chemistry of one of rap's most esteemed duos.
Rock's latest peaks with its final track: The bittersweet "Appreciate," a sequel of sorts to the duo's goosebump-inducing classic "T.R.O.Y.," flows with the effortless grace of Rock's best work as it catches up with the selected Smooth family members that its predecessor sketched so indelibly. Smooth appears on two more standout tracks, "It's A Love Thing" (which illustrates why Smooth qualifies as underground hip-hop's answer to LL Cool J) and "Fly Till I Die" (which features Smooth on the chorus and Talib Kweli on the verses). Rock's formidable collection of guest rappers for Soul Survivor II includes Dead Prez, Skillz, GZA, RZA, and Pharoahe Monch, but he largely limits his own lyrical contributions to a turn alongside Jay Dee on "Niggaz Know." Of course, Rock has always been a vastly better producer than rapper, but his lyrical presence is missed: His comforting voice gave the first Soul Survivor a cohesiveness and consistency that its sequel largely lacks. Similarly, Rock ill-advisedly strays from his lush, mellow chill-out sound on a handful of tracks, most notably "Warzone," a puzzling look at dance-floor politics which plays neither to Rock's strengths, nor to those of guest Dead Prez.
Still, Soul Survivor II features plenty of reminders of why Rock is both a role model and a major source of inspiration for outstanding beatsmiths like 9th Wonder (whose Little Brother guests on the inspired "Give It To Ya") and Jay Dee (whose old group, Slum Village, provides the rhymes for "Da Villa," the album's best non-Smooth track). "Pete Rock isn't trying to save the world, just hip-hop" is Soul Survivor II's memorable-but-grandiose slogan. With this solid but not quite exceptional disc, Rock will have to settle for saving his old partner's career.