When Snoop Dogg was released from his Death Row Records contract in late 1997, things for the iconic label looked dismal. Row co-founder/CEO Suge Knight was in jail, 2Pac had been murdered, and Dr. Dre, Kurupt – and later Daz Dillinger had all left the infamous imprint. As beef tracks and copycat rappers drove the label into the early ‘00s, there was only one bright spot: Crooked I. In the era that watched Eminem transcend from backpack emcee to superstar, Long Beach’s gangsta-lyricist was a proper fit for a label that countered the east coast lyricism of the early ‘90s with Kurupt, RBX and Snoop. The label’s legal woes and reluctant push-backs prevented Crooked I from ever releasing his Say Hi To The Bad Guy album, despite several profiled singles and appearances. Over seven years since he too left Death Row, the label’s new ownership releases Hood Star, a compilation of tracks from the nearly four albums that the Slaughterhouse emcee reportedly plugged away at, signed to the bad boys of Beverly Hills.

Hood Star, like many of the Death Row “vault” releases in the last year, can be confusing. Although it’s presumed this sequencing and arrangement was never intended to be an album as it stands, WIDE Awake/Death Row’s present project managers do a bang-up job hiding those qualities. “Live At Tha Row” is one of the album’s stand-outs. The track uses live instrumentation courtesy of Bizzy Bone producer Darren Vegas, Boo-Ya T.R.I.B.E.’s Monsta O and longtime Dr. Dre session percussionist Carl “Butch” Small. With a dynamic jam-session bassline, Crooked I tears through the groove with pungent bars that have both social commentary and punchlines. The minute the emcee mentions Roger & Zapp, the musicians break into a “More Bounce To The Ounce” interpolation that plays into Low Profile’s classic, “Pay Ya Dues.” This is sophisticated music, and the kind of offerings that would have made Crooked a star 10 years before Twitter and Slaughterhouse. Another gem within Hood Star is “Me and My Dogg.” Perhaps titled as a veiled address to Snoop or Tha Pound (whom were adversaries to Crooked during his Row tenure), the song is actually a dedication to a fallen comrade, Country Al. Joined by the same crooning trifecta that 2Pac used, K-Ci, Jojo and Danny Boy pay homage to a slain homie, as Crooked’s imagery recounts their happier times and final conversation. Although not a radio hit, the tune does show the emcee’s depth beyond aggressive battle deliveries and lyrical show-outs.

Those glimpses of glory are more the exception than the rule on Hood Star. Crooked I remains a master at his craft throughout the songs, but uninspired guest-work from label-mates Eastwood, Spider Loc and Ray J do little to enhance the art. Moreover, concepts like “Cali Luv III” – a weak amendment to the two classic mixes of 2Pac and Dr. Dre’s timepiece feel cheap, and more Suge Knight’s idea than any reasonable artist. Based on these selections, Crooked I did not appear to know what to say to the masses in that position. Tracks vary from championing his label and coast to acknowledging haters and perceived enemies, to just being a real or “hood” artist in an era where the early ‘90s west coast stars were portrayed with their mansions. In any event, Crooked I’s post-Row work has revealed a much more multi-dimensional emcee than seen within the pressure and confines or saving a sinking ship.

Hood Star’s enduring truth is nothing new: Crooked I is among the most talented and interesting lyricists in Hip Hop. As today we find him working with some of today’s best, Hood Star shows that he fit in just as well alongside Above The Law’s Big Hutch, Boo-Ya T.R.I.B.E., Juvenile and Too Short. Against all odds, Death Row had high hopes for the LBC veteran. Sadly, just like a sports season ended by strike, Rap fans will never know if Crooked I could have brought Tha Row its next pennant.