Senility isn’t a pretty thing, particularly if it affects your grandmama or uncle Charles. And once it hits your rap heroes, it’s even worse. For the most part, we folks in our late twenties and early thirties have succumbed to the preternatural forces that make hip-hop a commercial juggernaut, knowing today will never compare to the exuberance of yesterday but submitting to the sparkle of a new Missy-and-Timbaland joint just the same. More interesting is witnessing how the seemingly infallible players from back in the day age into the uncertainty of tomorrow. Grandmaster Caz runs with a youth organization uptown, hawking Type I cassette dubs of his legendary battles ($20 per slaying), and there’s a certain poignancy in his trying to catch raindrops with a teaspoon. Chuck D sounds as if he’s divorced himself from hip-hop entirely, letting the lessons learned from his Def Jam days (It Takes Russell Simmons to Hold Us Back) serve as guidance on the digital frontier; but at least in his creakiness he’s had the decency to formally change his name to Keynote Speaker.
KRS-One, though, has run into delusion as dead-on as a 9mm going bang. Always a heavy-handed didact, KRS is at his most sermonic on his latest album, The Sneak Attack. This time, though, he isn’t afforded the sympathetic social context surrounding his previous efforts. Hip-hop no longer yearns for a conscious elder—KRS’s favorite role even when he was a pudgy-faced youngster—unless that elder’s been produced by the Neptunes. So The Sneak Attack is riddled with incessant reminders of KRS-One’s everlasting place in hip-hop history, the demonizing of today’s artists as corrupt outgrowths of corporate greed, and more rah-rah purist jingoism than a Canibus song—all in the name of trying to get in where he fits in.
One of the album’s opening tracks, “Attendance,” rattles off quiz questions: “Who was the first to go a cappella in a video replay?/Who was the first to lose a DJ?/Who was the first to teach at Yale?/Who was the first to hit hip-hop reggae on the nail?” Presumably, you know the answer, and the subtext is clear: Know KRS-One’s history and you know hip-hop’s. While braggadocio is inherent in this pantheon of poetic battle, KRS-One’s adamant self-righteousness gives off the desperate stench of a man searching for validation. The odoriferous prattling continues on “Hiphop Knowledge” when, at song’s end, KRS speaks about his nine elements of hip-hop culture (as opposed to the four commonly ascribed), and the semantic difference between “rap” as music and “hip-hop” as culture. He first fought that battle on the classic B side “Hip-Hop vs. Rap” seven years ago, but now, instead of flipping crafty lyrics to make his point, he’s walking on moralizing crutches to guilt you into understanding.
Be thankful you were spared the press advance of The Sneak Attack. Guiding journalists through his album as condescendingly as anthropologists give museum tours, KRS again reviews his history and the eight albums he’s “published.” Ostensibly, only plebeians “release” albums. He fills us in on where he’s been since he proclaimed I Got Next in ’97: not just living in Los Angeles as a low-rent, high-profile A&R shill for Warner Bros./Reprise records, but, according to him, “developing and studying general philosophy with an emphasis on metaphysics.” (And you wondered what happened to that Kool Moe Dee comeback album.)
The press advance was intended for “serious journalists” only—those who know, KRS says, “music and art is not to be rated and reviewed, it is to be comprehended, enjoyed, and written about.” In between tracks, he quotes Michelangelo, Picasso, Jefferson, JFK, and Aldous Huxley—shamelessly justifying his ego through their words and sounding like the most clumsily earnest academic in the process.
Then again, KRS has always suffered from the ultimate God complex—the desire to be both above and among the people. He never tires of telling us about his beginnings in a South Bronx group home or of the fact he once “taught” (guest lectured, actually) at Yale. KRS-One’s delusions of grandeur motivated the creation of the Temple of HipHop, an organization formed four years ago to define the music’s culture and police the actions of its denizens. His past movements like Stop the Violence, Self Destruction, and HEAL were rooted in civic responsibility, but KRS’s Temple is an attempt to cage the evolving spirit of the culture and transform it into a rudimentary curriculum. The Temple’s manifesto comes bound in an 8 1/2-by-5 1/2-inch spiral notebook, complete with Bible-like index and laughable terminology (e.g., kulture, Hiphoppas, Refinitions, and overstanding). It reads like a brilliant parody.
For example, the difference between a Hiphoppa and a True Hiphoppa: The latter is so named because he or she is “kulturally self aware and complies with the codes of Refinitions . . . puts HipHop, the collective consciousness, before the individual consciousness . . . and are instinctive seekers and defenders of truth and justice.” Put down the cape, homeboy, it gets better. “When true Hiphoppas take the vow ‘I am Hiphop’ and begin training for inner-city victory,” the book continues, “the last name of the Hiphoppa is no longer acknowledged. Instead, ‘true’ Hiphoppas replace their last name, or family name, with ‘One.’ ” One piece of advice to aspiring rap superheroes: Don’t drink the Kool-Aid.
KRS-One’s desire to institutionalize the living, breathing energy of hip-hop permeates The Sneak Attack at every turn, and it is abusive in its consistency. With the Temple, KRS has aligned himself with, if not the powers that be (check those Koch Records accounting books), then old-guard principles he once rebelled against. By playing the roles of brother, teacher, preacher, and, ultimately, deity, it seems he’s not only trying to convince others of his significance but himself as well. And it’s not like the beats save him—the stripped-down production by KRS and brother Kenny Parker elicit neither profound minimalist allegory nor even nostalgia. So The Sneak Attack exposes an aging icon who’s been outwitted by hip-hop’s evolution.
And yet, one can’t help but listen. KRS-One’s most prodigious possession is his voice, a sometimes lumbering but always booming bullhorn that has not changed in the 15 years he’s rapped on wax. Even today, KRS’s timbre cuts swaths through the icy glare of Jigga’s jewelry and the Babylonian chatter of baby rappers like Ja Rule who can’t even pronounce “Edutainment.” Indeed, because he’s lived hip-hop in all its forms, KRS understands that a real MC is a communicator, whether the communication is a call to action, a hand-clap party rhyme, a scathing dis in the heat of battle, or, his specialty, a self-aggrandizing ego stroke (“I’m the teacher but you still can’t see, because while you respect Tupac, Tupac respected me,” he yells in “Attendance”). And for a man who’s long been criticized as contradictory, that is his greatest contradiction today: being a man who so obviously has lost perspective but remains the eternal essence of the MC.