First Sign that KRS-One Owns His Own Personal Time-Machine That Will Either (a – indicating the less likely of two alternatives) Reverse The Ongoing Collapse of Hip-Hop into Lafftafftastic Crapulence Or (b – highly favored among experts from the National Department for Literary Theory and Quantum Physics) Alter the Space-Time Continuum and Plunge Us All Into a Mind-Bending, Downward-Spiraling Wormhole of Metarap: his latest album, Life, is simultaneously one of the year’s best releases and a meta-lyrical tear in the fabric of hip-hop that would probably consume me whole if I had sufficient government funding to explore it.
Lesson-hate inducing ledes aside (game face on), Life finds KRS in top form. Over the course of his career, he has perfected the role of the rapper as orator-actor: few greats, past or present, can match his hyper-emotive delivery, bell-clear enunciation, and commanding vocal tone. In other words, when KRS is on the mic, there’s no doubt, first, who he is, and second, that you are in the presence of a legend. From Life’s opening cut “Bling Blung,” where he molds his end rhymes into bell sounds (try saying *bling-blUNG*) to its big beat biolyric closer “My Life,” KRS spits with urgency, passion, and unmatched technical control. For those who have never understood the difference between rapping and just talking over music in a stylized way, check his furious attempts to wrestle a gun away from another man on “Gimme Da Gun” or his multi-perspective stream of consciousness nightmares on “Woke Up.”
Backing KRS throughout Life is a collection of hard-hitting, neck-snapping beats and well handled guest shots. The latter half of the album (“Life Interlude,” “I Ain’t Leavin’,” “Organ Break,” “I am There,” “Still Slippin’,” and the above-mentioned “My Life”) features a string of straight-up neo-boom-bap loops that KRS works to perfection. As a nice counterpoint to his own dusty sage persona, Life also features verses by younger, lesser known rappers (Propaganda, Ishues, Raphi, and Triune) who match him bar for bar.
While the weak hooks on songs like “Mr. Percy,” “Freedom,” and “I Ain’t Leavin’” are a cause for concern, more problematic is what could be called the “philosophy” or “generic perspective” of Life – the ideas KRS weaves throughout his songs regarding what hip-hop as music should sound like. As is no secret by now, KRS wants hip-hop as music (setting aside his arguments about hip-hop as a culture, life-style, or way of being) to be more sociopolitically relevant, more uplifting, and less formulaic than it seems to be today. Part of this project seems to involve making hip-hop more historically conscious, linking it stylistically to late-80s and early-90s rap.
This critic wonders, however, whether the route to fuller, richer music actually lies ahead of us, rather than, as KRS contends, behind us. For all of KRS’s screeds against contemporary hip-hop, he doesn’t succeed in avoiding the metarap black hole that seems to suck in most hip-hop. On Life, KRS might not spit about crack and gun-running, but he still spends his time doing what rappers have famously been doing for over two decades now: rapping about rapping, rapping about how much better he is than others as illustrated by his particularly stylish, emotive way of alerting listeners to that fact. If a rapper is really interested in changing the game, he needs to do two things. First, work some different musical textures into his songs (why else do you think screw blew-up?). Second, write songs that do something besides discuss himself and how well he raps. Hundreds (if not thousands) of these songs have been written already, of course, but think for a second. What would an entire album sound like if a rapper – mainstream or underground, American or foreign – went the whole length without referring to himself, “wack rappers,” and “haters,” without demonstrating how much better he is by talking about how much better he is, or without declaring the need for “comebacks” and “returns”?
Life is a sonically excellent album for 1986 or 2006 and a compelling call for change. Philosophically, however, I have to disagree with the Blastmaster. The roots of hip-hop might be behind us in the South Bronx of the early-80s, but the future of hip-hop is somewhere ahead of us. Onward, if not upward.