Sign up for our free newsletter
Recently, I wrote a scathing review of the last Tupac album for BET.com. Within days, my in-box was overflowing with digital hate. Much of it was filled with the usual ignorant knee-jerk reactionsI was called “fag” and “queer” and threatened with physical violencebut some of the mail was more informed and thoughtful. What was surprising, though, was that everyone, from the juvenile to the mature, seemed to be genuinely hurt by my criticism. What I learnedother than to never, ever leak your home e-mail addressis that many fans view Tupac not just as an artist, but as a hero.
And then I remembered how easy it is for rappers to become representatives. Regardless of how far their stars rise, they remain connected to the people by slang, style, and story. It used to be that guys such as Chuck D and KRS-One tried to make something of their hometown-homeboy-makes-good status, even positioning themselves as political figures. Nowadays, though, most rappers are comfortable being only ghetto celebritiesjust like street-corner pimps and drug dealersnot role models. They’re lucky. They get all the same love and respect the old-schoolers did, and they never have to reconcile being both a recording artist and a preacher.
KRS-One (aka Kris Parker) claims to have birthed thugged-out East Coast hiphop on his seminal first album with Boogie Down Productions, 1987’s Criminal Minded, but there’s no question that “conscious rap” has been his calling card and greatest strength ever since. Over the years, the self-proclaimed Teacher has advocated education (“You Must Learn,” “Why Is That?”), denounced police brutality (“Who Protects Us From You?” “Sound of da Police”), pushed for social and sexual responsibility (“The Homeless,” “Jimmy,” “World Peace”), and deciphered American racism (“The Racist”). Even when his perspectives have bordered on conspiracy theory (“Illegal Business” and the anti-red meat anthem “Beef”), KRS’ booming bullhorn of a voice and uncompromising aggression have made his every utterance worthy of consideration. And it hasn’t hurt that his beatsmostly his own but with notable contributions from folks such as DJ Premierare almost always as raw and urgent as his messages.
Distill the most intense elements of KRS’ past material into a formula, use that formula to construct an album, and you have The Sneak Attack. From the slashing horns of “Ghetto Lifestyles” to the squashed funk of the title track, every cut is a call to battle. As usual, the Blastmaster (yet another of Parker’s self-invented monikers) handles most of the production himself. It’s immediately obvious where his priorities lie: With the exception of the laid-back, string-laden gondola ride of “The Raptism,” all of The Sneak Attack’s tracks are sparse, stomping two-bar loops with little detail or variation. The collection is solid and energetic throughout, but each time KRS drops another fight-song chorus it becomes clearer that the jutting synths and rudimentary bass lines are just a backdrop. KRS wants to uplift, but more with his rah-rah rhetoric than with his beats. Just look at the song titles: From “The Lesson” to “Get Your Self Up” to the gospel-like “I Will Make It,” the tunes make it plain that what KRS is kickin’ is funky-fresh, uh, self-help:
You can bite down on my rage, bite down on my anticipation
With no doubt or hesitation, repeat this affirmation
“I will make it,” not,
“I wanna make it”
“Sure gonna make it”
In fact, we’ve made it
Every time we state it and believe it, we create it
The power of your very word is
Of course, any work of art designed to be that motivational is going to have its overbearing moments. On The Sneak Attack, the most pretentious lyrics are made all the more obvious and embarrassing by the Teacher’s decision to deliver them a cappella. KRS raps a Christian parable on “False Pride,” and on “Doth Thou Know,” he blasts irresponsible musicians with slipshod King James: “Satan has hold of thy spirit, so evil has hold of thy lyric/Whomsoever shall hear it, shall adapt it/And walk the talk of evil just as ye rapped it.”
To those of us who grew up with helpful hiphop, KRS-One will always be that favorite uncle trying to keep us out of troubleeven if he does occasionally overdo it. Unfortunately, in the never-look-back world of rap, street cred hardly lasts a generation, so KRS’ icon status doesn’t mean much to the current crop of heads reared on materialism and apathy. That KRS spends so much of The Sneak Attack presenting his résumé is the album’s greatest weakness. By the second song, “Attendance,” it’s already out of control, with KRS comparing himself to both Christ and MLK and rattling off his contributions to hiphop: “Who was the first to teach at Yale?/Who was the first to hit that hiphop/Reggae on the nail?/Who was the first to say, ‘Stop the violence’ and teach that real bad boys move in silence?” That’s all well and good, but by the end of the list, things start to sound pretty inconsequential: “Who was the first to have a DJ and a sideman?” “Hiphop Knowledge” even finds KRS retracing the steps of his career year by year, justifying all his moves and contradictions. As he lashes out at his critics”Fuck that, fuck you, and fuck your pen”you start to wonder whether rehashing the past is the best way to stay current.
In the end, KRS proves his modernity by simply being, as they say, on point. His delivery is as crisp as it ever was, and his powerful voice hasn’t lost a decibel in more than 10 years. He rides his own competent production with a confidence and cadence that most MCs never master. And in doing so, he even makes some clever points about his influential role: “All that ice and thug life, that’s not my world/I’m the teacher, but you still can’t see/’Cause while you respect Tupac, Tupac respected me,” he rhymes on “Attendance.”
But the time and effort that he spends trying to validate his longevity on this album are heavy-handed reminders of how hard it is to be both a respected performer and a leader. As an artist, KRS has grown more polished, but as a statesmanthe teacher, role model, and philosopher he fancies himselfhe is more vague than ever. Songs such as “What Kinda World” and “The Mind” recall the glory days of 1990’s Edutainment, when KRS was dabbling in social activism. But his philosophies have transmuted from the relevant (“Stop the Violence”) to the nebulous (his interpretation of “metaphysics”), and his organizations (Human Education Against Lies) have petered out only to be replaced by newer, goofier ones (the Temple of Hiphop). The only thing that has remained is his verbal skill. If nothing else, that should make him somebody’s hero. CP