Hip-hop luminaries deliver a tag team album with solid results, but could have reached deeper for something more valuable.
It's no surprise to longtime fans that KRS-One and Buckshot are luminaries in the field of rap. Both artists are enjoying long careers in an industry known for short stints in the public eye, creative burn out, and fickle audiences. Since the 1980s and the days of his group Boogie Down Productions, KRS-One has consistently churned out his "edutainment" brand of boom bap hip-hop, propelled by KRS-One's commanding presence, sometimes controversial and seemingly conflicting "philosophies", and intense lyricism. Likewise, Buckshot's microphone fiendishness is well documented, from his work with Black Moon and the super-group Boot Camp Clik. He has garnered attention for teaming up with acclaimed beat maker 9th Wonder for two albums, Chemistry and The Formula.
Despite some qualitative dips in output over the years, rap fans should know what to expect from these two when they make music on their own. It makes sense, therefore, that we should know what to expect from KRS-One and Buckshot when they join forces. For the most part, it's exactly what you'd expect: hard beats that often recall the sound of New York hip-hop in the '90s, attention to lyrics centered on the skills and accomplishments of the emcees, and a couple of songs to make the audience think about an issue or subject in a different way. While the first two components are definitely in stock on KRS-One and Buckshot's latest, Survival Skills, that last category -- challenging the listener's core assumptions and viewpoints -- doesn't happen as often as we might hope.
This is especially interesting when it comes to KRS-One, the self-proclaimed "Teacha". While he references his university lecture circuit credentials on the new CD, there is very little "teaching" to be found here, or on the last few KRS-One offerings (Hip Hop Lives, Adventures in Emceein, and Maximum Strength) for that matter. Lately, he's been more concerned with advertising his resume than with crafting clever rhymes about substantive issues, as he's done in the past. A short list of his rhyme topics would include comparing taxation to pimping ("Who Are the Pimps"), metaphysics and religion ("The Real Holy Place", "Higher Level", and "The Truth"), community relationships with law enforcement ("Black Cop"), and of course the push for peace and the decrease in violence (the iconic "Self-Destruction").
Instead, KRS-One's recent activity has been in the vein of what I like to call his "Outta Here" style. On 1993's Return of the Boom Bap, KRS-One's single "Outta Here" chronicled, over DJ Premier's production, the strength of his catalogue and longevity. It's funny to listen to that song now, in 2009, because you can see that, back in 1993, KRS-One was already a "veteran" emcee, and he saw himself in that light. "Back in the day I knew rap would never die," he opens the song, and then launches into a chronology that explains his place in the rap pantheon alongside Public Enemy and Eric B. & Rakim. Thing is, KRS-One spends a substantial amount of his music's running time on reminding you about his achievements. I say "reminding you" because, to borrow a phrase from the great MC Lyte, I cram to understand how this strategy of rhyming would entice new listeners. He's preaching to the choir that was already raised on his sermons. No doubt, ingratiating oneself with a younger audience is a challenge for any entertainer with longevity, but KRS-One goes out of his way to be hip-hop's elder statesman, to be the guy who has already done everything the next generation thinks of as a new trend. "We already wore that hat, those pants, and that shirt," he says in "Robot".
On Survival Skills, Buckshot actively participates in this approach. I don't know if you'll see the cover art if you choose to download the album, so let me tell you about it. The cover art depicts the two rap icons as survivalists wading through the jungle (symbolizing "the industry", perhaps?), catching fish from perilous waters (a man who can fish eats for a lifetime, right?), and scaling mountains as they give each other a hand up for support (he's my brotha, he's not heavy!). I'm making light of it, because it cracks me up, but it's actually kind of clever in the way it fits the album's theme.
But just as the realization of long term success is an asset, there's a touch of complacency in KRS-One and Buckshot's touting of that success. Being able to "survive", and having "survival skills", suggests an ability to maintain a presence in a particularly difficult environment. It does not, however, suggest an ability to change, transform, or transcend that environment. You get a sense of this in the flows KRS-One has been kicking lately, where his penchant for flipping a wide range of styles has given way to his getting comfortable with one precise, deliberate delivery that sometimes devolves into repeating certain words and phrases throughout the course of a verse or song ("You Made It", "Amazin'"). From this angle, unwavering flows and reliance on repetition are symptomatic of a mindset. In other words, surviving, without aspiring to something more, probably won't make a dent in the status quo.
Beginning with the title track, Survival Skills is fixated on denouncing the current state of hip-hop. The second track "Robot" epitomizes the fixation. The song sends a message of originality, that artists should strive to be trendsetters rather than followers. It's the song's execution that obscures the message, as KRS-One and Buckshot decry the use of auto-tune rap ("The best one to do it was Roger Troutman / Nah, Shorty, T-Pain didn't come out then") and whatever other trends might be in the mix. Buckshot brings the chorus, "Everybody wanna rap, everybody wanna sing / Everybody do their thing like a mother*ckin' robot". Much like Jay-Z's "D.O.A. (Death Of Auto-tune)", it almost feels like listening to a couple of old men yelling at a bunch of trespassing kids, "Get off my lawn!" Not that the "Robot" or "D.O.A." are bad songs. Actually, I like them both, and find them both catchy. My contention is that when you harp on your age and longevity, as KRS-One and Buckshot do, you might come across as a little out-of-step when you make claims of being the hip-hop "orthodoxy" and when it appears that you're arguing against recent trends in a "been there, done that" sort of way.
My, how times do change. Back in the '90s, KRS-One was extolling the virtues of hip-hop fans in the Boogie Down Productions single "Like a Throttle": "The charts are not equal to the respect of the people. / Their respect doesn't weeble or wobble / They know the difference from an artist and a lip-syncing model." On Survival Skills, KRS-One explains, "You cats got it backwards / You say real is 'wack' and the fake sh*t -- that's 'good'". If you accept this assertion as true, it makes you wonder how we went from being knowing, discerning hip-hoppers to being incapable of distinguishing the "real" from the "fake".
Despite my griping, there's a respectable amount of enjoyable material. Even a song like "Clean Up Crew", that takes its janitor-and-cleaning-product analogy to the maximum, is worth the price of admission. And there are exceptions to the lyrical sameness. The best is the K'naan assisted "Think of the Things". Here, the emcees aim their lyrics directly to parents who aren't spending enough time with their children, as well as to children who are learning how to become young adults. In particular, KRS-One's verse addressing the behavior and maturity of adolescent girls is absolutely inspired. It's within this context of mentoring and effecting positive change that these gentlemen best employ their age, wisdom, and experience. Had there been more songs like "Think of the Things", I think Survival Skills would have been a deeper, weightier album, as opposed the (mostly) battle rap album it is now.
Offsetting the lack of subject matter variety is the album's smorgasbord of producers, including Havoc, Ill Mind, Black Milk, Marco Polo, Nottz, and 9th Wonder. Hard, dramatic beats intensify the first seven tracks, while the back seven go for a smoother melodic vibe. The best of the smooth tracks, and quite possibly one of the best overall, is the album closer "Past Present Future". Featuring the sensational and promising Melanie Fiona belting out the hook, "Past Present Future" does a great job of bridging style and substance, experience and trendiness, and pop, R&B and hip-hop. With production duties so widely spread, you can't help but wonder if there's a lost opportunity here. What, you might ask, would have happened under the auspices of a single producer, such as 9th Wonder or Marco Polo? That sort of conjecture is anybody's guess, but what we did get works well for being eclectic without sacrificing cohesion.
Guest rappers and vocalists also help to ameliorate the album's subject matter problems. Besides hearing how KRS-One and Buckshot mesh, we're treated to guest spots from folks like Mary J. Blige, Melanie Fiona, Bounty Killer, Immortal Technique, K'naan, Sean Price, Loudmouf, Talib Kweli, and Pharoahe Monch. I just wish Kweli and Pharoahe Monch had been able to put in full verses instead of getting stuck doing hook duty.
Ultimately, Survival Skills does what its creators intended for it to do: to be resolute in its dedication to lyrical acumen and head nodding production. Had they also been more adventurous with the content, the album would have risen to another level.