1987's Criminal Minded and its 1988 follow-up By Any Means Necessary made KRS-ONE and his crew Boogie Down Productions' place in hip-hop history permanent. The two albums blended hardcore accounts of street life with incisive social commentary and remarkable, sparse beats. From there, KRS evolved further into "The Teacher" that he wanted to be, culminating in 1990's underrated classic Edutainment, packed with subversive political messages.
Ever since that point, KRS has struggled. On the final BDP album Sex and Violence and three subsequent solo albums, he was never quite sure what he wanted to do—continue in the vein of social criticism, make less academic funk-based jams, or spend track after track reminding people how important he once was. The latter habit, along with uneven production, made some of his solo work less than remarkable, especially his self-titled 1995 album and 1997’s I Got Next, an album that KRS himself admitted was an outright attempt to get on the radio.
Now, four years later, KRS is back with his fourth solo album The Sneak Attack. Like most of his post-1990 work, it can’t be written off entirely but isn’t going to receive high praise either. The most obvious fact here is that KRS is slowly returning to teacher mode. Though his plate of issues has slimmed down considerably since back in the day, he still takes a sharp view of certain aspects of the world around us, and channels it into articulate rhymes. Here he has two big issues: The idea that hip-hop is not just a musical genre but a cultural force, a way of looking at life, and should be respected as such (his mantra throughout The Sneak Attack is “Rap is something you do, hip-hop is something you live”) and that hip-hop is missing spirituality and common sense. He also touches on democracy and education (“Why”, “The Mind”), power structures (“What Kinda World”), and “thugness” in hip-hop (“Hush”).
Each of KRS’ solo albums includes one track which criticizes religious institutions while praising personal expressions of spirituality. On numerous tracks here, KRS tries to inject hip-hop with spirituality by offering the concept that hip-hop music is such an important creation that the artists should think of themselves as gods when they create. While it’s questionable whether the already-inflated egos of some hip-hop artists (especially KRS himself) need further elevation, while discussing this he does touch on some interesting ideas about humanism and “spiritual activism”.
When KRS-ONE isn’t competing in the “which hip-hop legend has the biggest ego?” contest (like on “Hip Hop Knowledge”, a recap of his own history), he delivers some of the most relevant lyrics he’s penned in a long time. Where those lyrics are paired with high-quality music (as on “The Lessin”), the album succeeds. The main problem here is that the music is rarely top-notch. The production, mostly by KRS and his brother/longtime BDP DJ Kenny Parker, is either absolutely flat or oddly incongruent on most tracks. The album also continues KRS’ annoying recent habit of taking an already not-so-hot chorus and repeating it ad infinitum. Thus The Sneak Attack unfortunately has more in common with KRS-ONE’s other solo albums than with BDP’s classics. Still, it’s a small sign of hope for those listeners that long for KRS to forget about his “legend” status for a minute and start dissecting the inner workings of America one more time.