The Throne We Should Be Watching

When did KRS-One join the witness protection program?

Have you seen this man? KRS-One is still on point.

He didn’t. In fact, it’s quite the opposite: he’s actually put out seven really good albums over the last five years alone. And yet it feels like he’s disappeared right out there in the open. You would think with so many people lamenting the alleged Death of Hip-Hop that a legend like KRS-One would get recognized for dropping a few instant classics over the last several years.

Music bloggers and casual rap fans wait with bated breath any time Kanye West puts out an album and declare the last and next Roots album a classic and wish to the heavens that OutKast will some day make another album. People are losing their minds waiting for Dr. Dre to finish Detox, the album he’s supposedly been working on for almost 10 years. And yet there’s KRS the Teacha, a unanimous “Greatest of All Time” on everyone’s shortlist no matter the criteria, and he’s not just still alive, or still recording… he’s making some of his strongest albums ever.

Don’t believe me? Go listen to Survival Skills, the 2009 album he made with Buckshot. This is easily my favorite hip-hop record of the last five years. If you click away from this article considering buying one album, it should be this one. It’s just a perfect storm of quality beats/production with the solid 1-2 punch of Kris and Buckshot on the mic.

Still not convinced? Did you know he made an album with Wu-Tang production disciple True Master in 2010? Picture KRS-One doing his metaphysical lyrical lectures over that grimy sound you’d expect from a producer off the RZA tree.

And that’s not all.

Let’s actually rewind and take it back to 2008, when Maximum Strength sounded like KRS-One was still capable of making the classic banger he hadn’t made in over a decade. Following his 90’s peak (his self-titled 1995 album), I Got Next (1997) was a hit but also signaled the beginning of the end. He’d go four years before releasing his next album, the decent but uneven Sneak Attack. The rest of the 2000’s saw a string of 10 lackluster albums that only hinted at his true genius (it’s hard to even fact check; his official discography differs from site to site, adding to this whole witness protection mystery). That’s right, approximately 10 albums from 2001 to 2007 (and those are the ones I’m discarding as mediocre).

So 2008’s Maximum Strength comes out and it’s pretty slammin. Kris sounds sharp, he’s chosen some decent beats. OK, cool. This is probably the weakest of this recent run, but it seemed to signal a shift in the right direction.

KRS-One: Knowledge Reigns Supreme Over Nearly Everyone.

The following year is when the aforementioned Survival Skills dropped, kicking off a run of collaboration albums that have all been straight fire. It’s one thing for Jay-Z and Kanye to pair up and make one great album (Watch the Throne), or for a legend like Eminem to team up with a lesser-known but respected MC like Royce da 5’9” (Bad Meets Evil: Hell the Sequel ). But KRS-One has now made FOUR such albums over the last four years:  Survival Skills with Buckshot (2009), Meta-Historical with True Master (2010), Godsville with Showbiz (2011), and the absolute ass-kicking Royalty Check with Bumpy Knuckles (2011). [That doesn’t even count the 2007 album he made with Marly Marl, Hip-Hop Lives, cuz I haven’t heard it.]

On top of all that, he also managed to release a solo EP, Back to the L.A.B. in 2010, six hard classic-sounding tracks from the Blastmaster. Fittingly, “L.A.B.” stands for Lyrical Ass Beating, and Kris delivers yet again. This one is definitely a standout among this recent run.

And oh by the way, in January of 2012 he put out The BDP Album with his brother Kenny Parker handling the production. Spoiler alert: this one is really good too. Score it as a solo record, a collaboration, or the first new “BDP” album in a generation, I don’t know. At this point I’m as confused by the details of what’s come out as I am baffled by the fact that all these amazing albums have been largely ignored by the mainstream.

He comes off as confident as ever, and yet he still sounds hungry. The verbal gymnastics are one thing, of course KRS can bring the delivery and work the wordplay on the mic, but the depth and longevity of this man is nothing short of incredible. At the risk of overstating it, it’s an embarrassment of riches. If he was quietly dropping duds and had lost his skills, turned into Jordan-on-the-Wizards without the fanfare, it might make sense. But this is a legendary pioneer, one of the best ever to rock a mic, seemingly at the peak of his powers, and no one’s noticing.

I realize that young guns and one-hit wonders will always be at the forefront of popular culture, especially in hip-hop, and maybe all the awards shows, all-star games, and late-night TV shows have all begged KRS-One to come on and he’s said no. I don’t know. He’s never really played ball with the big record labels, but “going indie” doesn’t (and shouldn’t) disappear an artist the way it may have back in the day.

So why is he practically invisible despite being an undisputed legend doing some of his best work? Don’t we usually celebrate the Jay-Zs and Eminems of the world when they drop a great album? Isn’t that part of why we mark every anniversary of the tragic murders of Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls? Cuz we wonder what might have been, shaking our heads in the silence of their never-recorded classics.

Does KRS-One just choose to operate in the shadows, as he probably did all those years ago as a teenage graffiti artist in the Bronx? Is it simply a matter of the cliché about people not wanting to hear The Hard Truth? Is he too anti-establishment, too spiritual? Maybe. But, just as happened with his Stop The Violence Movement in 1989, once again a positive message in hip-hop is ignored (squashed?) while bling, beef, and bullet holes make the headlines.

Seems unfair; a cultural injustice. If only there were more witnesses.

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The Boy Who Cried Roots

The Roots' Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson and Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter. Photo by Chago Akii-bua.

At some point, “The new Roots album is really good” became a cliché we’ve been taking for granted since the release of their fourth album, things fall apart, in 1999. They’ve since dropped six more gems, some better than others, but all so consistent and at times stunning in their quality that we’ve just become immune, desensitized, and unappreciative. Oh, yea… The Roots have a new album. I heard it’s really good.

Every other year I find myself telling this friend or that about how great the new Roots album is, stressing its brilliance and begging to be taken seriously… feeling like the boy who cried wolf, except I’ve never lied.

Their legendary live shows, their solid canon of classic studio albums, their recent high-profile gig as house band for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon… the bar has been set pretty high. And yet with each new release, as they continue to sail over that bar and raise it higher and higher, we shrug our shoulders and nod our heads and put The Roots on our year-end best-of lists and that’s that.

Since 1999’s things fall apart spawned the hit “You Got Me,” the Roots have quietly blessed us with a run of albums that could rival others entire careers, starting with the wildly eclectic Phrenology (what I call their White Album in how experimental and psychedelic it is) and continuing through The Tipping Point, Game Theory and Rising Down. These four albums over six years seemed to come and go, pure genius being ignored right out in the open.

Then in 2010 came How I Got Over, a late-career classic. A “mature” hip-hop album that was still a banger, it was universally hailed as a masterpiece (and yet still probably shrugged off as “another great Roots album”). With their killer collab album with John Legend, Wake Up!, released on its heels that same year, I assumed How I Got Over might be their last album for a quite a while…  And then at the end of 2011, bam!, they hit us with undun. And once again, they’ve outdone even themselves.

As the press releases and subsequent reviews have said, undun is “an existential re-telling of the short life of one Redford Stephens (1974-1999),” a loose-narrative concept album told in reverse about the death of the fictional struggling everyman from the hood. It starts with the flat-line beep sound of his death and then goes back to tell the story of ghetto inevitability.

After countless listens on repeat, I don’t see (or hear) it as “told in reverse,” as much as it seems circular. You can come in at any point and pick it up. It’s like a classic movie on cable, like Goodfellas, where no matter what part is on when you find it, you feel compelled to watch the rest even though you know how it ends. And when the instrumental suite that closes the CD ends…. it starts again with the flat-line beep, and before you know it you’re circling around for another turn with this all-too-familiar American tale of desperation and destiny… like the endless cycle of lives trapped along the poverty line.

To catch a thief, who stole the soul I prayed to keep
Insomniac, bad dreams got me losing sleep
I’m dead tired, my mind playing tricks, deceit
A face in the glass, unable to admit defeat
All that I am, all that I was is history
The past unraveled, adding insult to this injury
I’m fighting the battle for the soul of the century
Destiny is everything that I pretend to be
Look, and what I did came back to me eventually
The music played on, and told me I was meant to be awake
It’s unresolved like everything I had at stake
Illegal activity controls my black symphony
Orchestrated like it happened incidentally
Oh, there I go, from a man to a memory
Damn, I wonder if my fam will remember me

That’s the very first verse we hear from Black Thought. If I decided to quote any more of his brilliant one liners and verse-long portraits, it would fill this whole post. Just go read them, or better yet, submerge yourself in this record and hear a lyrical master at work, in both writing and delivery. His basic style/flow may have been birthed by the legendary Rakim a generation ago, but Black Thought absolutely belongs in any type of “Top 5 MC’s of All Time,” list/argument you want to make. He might not have the cultural impact of Tupac or Biggie; He’s been around for close to 20 years on record, but he’s not quite a pioneering legend like Chuck D or KRS-One; he’s not as flashy as Nas, Eminem, or Andre 3000. And while he’s undoubtedly benefited from the beats, production and leadership of ?uestlove, it’s also possible that Black Thought’s “legacy” is diminished cuz we just hail them as The Best Hip-Hop Group (by a mile) and we never quite give BT his due. Taken for granted once again.

On this latest album, Black Thought is so concise, as plain spoken yet creative with his wordplay and metaphors as ever. Anchored by a revolving door of guest MC’s led by veteran Roots role player on the mic Dice Raw, Black Thought gets the most out of every line, no words are wasted, every rhythmic turn and lyrical phrasing complementing the beat as if it was actually part of ?uestlove’s drum kit.

One of the most interesting recent quotes I read from Black Thought was about his serious approach to the writing:  “Everything you hear me saying on this record is at least the fourth or fifth draft. I would write a verse and then rewrite it and rewrite it. I don’t sit down and write a song, and then slam down the phone like, ‘We got another one!’ and pop some champagne. It’s like if someone’s writing a novel: You write a series of drafts.”

Like a great American novel, I hope that after all the accolades and Grammy nominations and glowing blog reviews, we all remember this incredible album, this snapshot of a society crumbling… with too many people “face down in the ocean, and no one’s in the lighthouse,” and too many others too busy watching the throne.

Compared to it’s predecessor, undun is sonically stark, but still extremely effective. Musical storytelling that paints pictures behind the stunning verses. If they’d never sent out the blurbs about this being a “concept album,” we still would have picked up on the cinematic vibe. It’s like the kind of movie that makes you fall in love with movie making again. And while this particular one has sadly played out in American streets over and over again, undun will still be worth revisiting and repeating for years to come.

Undun is not just “another great Roots album,” (though it is that). It reminds you that albums are an art form and luckily artists like the Roots are still making them.

A Love Letter to The Low End Theory

Time: Back in the Day
Place: Boulevard of Linden

Assessing great works of art, or trying to use words to convey the depths of our admiration of said works, is a futile pursuit. It’s not quite silly, as there’s good reason to spread the word about an album, painting, movie, or book that others might love. But it’s damn near impossible.

One of the great artistic landmarks of late-20th century popular music, and specifically the world of hip-hop, is A Tribe Called Quest’s 1991 masterpiece The Low End Theory.

The problem with where I take this essay from here relates to my previous assertion that it’s such a difficult task. It would be easier to lock you in a room or a car and just put The Low End Theory on repeat. More effective would be a time machine to transport us back to the house parties of the early-to-mid 90’s, where it seemed everyone had this album and everyone knew at least most of the words. Another angle might be to quote the legions of previous writers and musicians who have noted its brilliance and the influence that this Tribe album had on the world of rap music.

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Best Albums of the Decade 2000’s

Originally, I set out to compile my list of the Top 20 Albums of the Decade. The 2000’s. Or the Aughts. Yea, I guess we never got around to naming this decade and now it’s already ending. I thought I was realistic by not even attempting a Top 10 Best Albums of the 2000’s, but it turns out even 20 proved difficult. And once I passed 20, the albums just kept flowing and then I thought “okay, Top 40 would be good, since “Top 40” is sort of a tried and true phrase in popular music. Then I hit 50. OK, I’ll do a Top 50, why not! Then I got to 52 and beyond and finally just gave up and let myself list all the great albums I loved this decade and not worry about cutting any out just to keep the list at 20, 40 or 50. So I ended up with 65. Seems a bit excessive, sure. But it’s still only about 6 or 7 per year. And I easily could have added a few more. Actually, I could just call this a Top 50 Best Albums of the Decade list because they’re not numbered, and if you actually read through it and count the exact number of albums, I’m just glad you’re reading our blog.

Please add your Top 5, 10, or 65 favorite albums of the decade (or point out my glaring omissions) in the comments section. Now, on with the list…

Mos Def – Black on Both Sides (1999)
First album on the list and I’m already cheating. This one came out just a couple months before 2000, and is such a great album. One of the best hip-hop albums of all time, even if you don’t see it on such lists in the mainstream media. So why not kick off this list with the last great album of the previous century?

2000

Queens of the Stone Age – Rated R

OutKast – Stankonia

Aimee Mann – Bachelor No. 2, or the last remains of the dodo

Talib Kweli & Hi Tek – Reflection Eternal

Radiohead – Kid A

U2 – All That You Can’t Leave Behind
It’s pretty easy to hate on these grandiose mega-stars, but this was and is a truly great U2 album made several years after most of us figured they’d never do it again.

D’Angelo – Voodoo

Ryan Adams – Heartbreaker

Ghostface Killah – Supreme Clientele

2001

Bob Dylan – Love and Theft

Wilco – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
This one would probably make the list even there were only 5 albums on it. Songwriting, atmosphere, and using the studio as an instrument without getting too cute or overdoing it. It’s all here, a classic peak from a great band.

Tool – Lateralus

Jay Z – The Blueprint

Whiskeytown – Pneumonia

2002

Sonic Youth – Murray Street
This is how I love my Sonic Youth. This album and the three that have followed are all really good. I actually like this (and those other recent ones) more than their old classics. Blasphemy for hardcore SY fans and a nation of hipsters, I know.

Elvis Costello – When I Was Cruel

Bright Eyes – Lifted, Or the Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground

The Roots – Phrenology
A bit all over the place stylistically and a bit long, but still mostly brilliant. It’s like their White Album.

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