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.

If the Cover Fits: Great Art to Match Some of the Best Albums of 2011

You can’t judge an album by its cover, but there’s something about when certain albums seem to match their covers, often in some odd unexplained way. For me, it’s not something obvious like “yea, it’s a picture of the band playing the music,” but something much subtler. So this isn’t necessarily my 10 Most Favorite Albums of 2011 so far (though many of them might make that list if it existed), these are just 10 Favorite Covers That Happen To Match Their Music Well. Or something like that.


The War on Drugs
Slave Ambient
The kind of album that’s hard to describe: it’s lush and dreamy but it still has an organic sound and chugging pace that seems in conflict with itself. Same for how many tracks sorta hum along on what seems like just one chord and yet you don’t feel bored. It’s an interesting drone, if that’s even possible. Like Bob Dylan meets Velvet Underground. Slave Ambient sounds how that cover looks. It’s this very strange intersection of electronica and Americana, though it doesn’t overtly sound like either.

PJ HarveyLet England Shake
Stark and fluttering, subtly explosive, beautiful yet blunt. PJ Harvey delivered one of the finest albums of the year so far and this black and white cover is just sharp enough for the occasion.

Jay-Z and Kanye WestWatch the Throne
Is that not the perfect cover for Jay Z and Kanye West’s Watch the Throne? Just pure gold. Delicate wrapping, and you could say at times some paper-thin rapping as well. The cover doesn’t tell you the title or the artist (of course, you already know that you are in the presence of royalty), it simply conveys luxury. Insisting that it is the best of the best because, well, it’s the most expensive. But what’s inside? Like the cover, the album is more flash than substance. The only promise that’s really delivered here is that of more luxury. Expensive samples, top notch production, and signature styles (for better and worse) of the two co-star’s verses about, well, luxury. More gold rapping. The only album cover that might have been more appropriate would be a scanned image of their bank statements and tax returns.

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Process? We Talkin’ ‘Bout Process?

Over the last several years, as technology moves at hyperwarped speeds that we haven’t yet invented fancy enough new words to describe, there’s been a backlash of purists and throwbacks who prefer things how they used to be. That could be true of film, art, sports, journalism, lots of things. But it’s particularly interesting in how it pertains to music.

This is not what's inside a laptop.

I’m mostly talking about process. It’s not just the access, the fact that anyone can record their own “album” in their basement with a laptop (and seems like everyone has), but also how the technology at the high end affects the professional artists we know and love and the ones we’ll actually discover tomorrow. Somehow the process has become a bigger part of the back story for a particular album or group. “They uploaded their demos, went viral, and now they’re selling millions!” It’s the updated take on discovering the Next Dylan on a barstool at an open mic somewhere.

Nowadays, musicians are reclaiming some sort of authenticity in what seems a reaction to this technological explosion. One of the poster boys for this movement has been Jack White, using vintage gear, cherishing vinyl and launching a real full-service label, not to mention that scene where he strings together a homemade guitar in a cow field in the film It Might Get Loud (contrasted by tech wiz The Edge and all his pedals and effects). But these analog guys who take a similar approach to Jack White’s (with less memorable results) are too numerous to list. The point is, we tend to gravitate toward authenticity, and it’s also natural to yearn for “the old days” (again, no matter the genre or medium).

It’s also easy to tear down and rip on anything that could be painted as “synthetic” or simply created (faked?) through the use of computers. It stinks of money and, possibly, inauthenticity! But really, I don’t care how many laptops and how much fancy software you have, you can’t fake not having songs that suck. The songs don’t lie. Sure, they can trick you and maybe you might think they’re better looking in a certain light late at night, but the next morning always comes. The same holds true for Mr. Vintage Authentic who only records to tape and refuses modern technology. That’s fine, but he too still needs good songs.

So assuming we’re only talking about our own personal vision of “good songs” and quality artists, we’re back to process. Does it matter to you when you hear someone “recorded his new album on a 4-track in a remote cabin in the woods” vs. “layed down tracks in various professional studios in L.A. and NYC”? The end result is all that should really matter, but subconsciously I think we all assign certain imagery and associations with the process. “Oh I heard he got sober and found god and had his yoga instructor in the studio with him” or “They locked themselves in the basement and rocked out live and recorded it all in one or two takes.”

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