Few things provoke more nervous laughter in pop music than the announcement that a one-time visionary has crafted a “return-to-form” album. That's mostly because the term gets grossly misapplied. By my count, each of Bowie's last four albums has been a “return to form,” and ditto for Elvis Costello. And what about that Stooges “return to form” that came out earlier this year? And now we have Hip-Hop Lives, the long awaited collaboration between KRS-One and Marley Marl. So the big question: return to form?
Sorta. It starts with straight fire — the title track is tough and thumping, and at the 1:30 mark it becomes electrifying as KRS starts proposing, rapid-fire, a series of anagrams for ‘hip-hop.'After that, though, the album's energy dips, with KRS-One running through his resume (“I Was There”) and fumbling through an uncomfortable bit of Latin hip-hop (“Musika”). Then, just when it seems like the album is in a hopeless tailspin, it steadies itself: “Rising to the Top” is the pick hit, a terrifically antagonistic number built around a high-strung orchestra sample and lyrics that read like a Cliff's Notes (‘Kris'Notes, maybe?) to hip-hop history. It's a short trip over to the ominous “Kill a Rapper,” where KRS outlines every unsolved hip-hop murder while Marley plinks away grimly on a dead key at the high end of the piano. The momentum from then on is maintained, KRS asserting his authority over Marl's expert production.
Some outlets are calling the record “hectoring” and I guess I can see that — but if anyone has earned the right to a little sermonizing, it's KRS-One. And for another thing, he's bragging about his skill, and if Mims gets to prattle on and on about his ‘hot'ness without making anything like an actual point, why not allow KRS a few self-satisfied boasts? “I'm not old school or new school — I'm all school” he says near the record's end, and for the first time in a while it sounds plausible.
It should also be noted that Hip-Hop Lives is something of a “record for the times.” Russell Simmons made headlines recently for openly questioning some of contemporary hip-hop's tropes, and KRS seems to be of the same mind: “Hip and hop means intelligence springing up/ we singing — what?/ sickness, hatred, ignorance and poverty/ or health, love, awareness and wealth — follow me!” This kind of moralism tends to make me edgy (preachiness in pop is, for the most part, disastrous), but here it's clear that the sentiment is coming from a place of genuine love. KRS delivers the line like a man watching the building he grew up in being razed.