If you don’t know KRS-One by now, you will never, ever, ever know him. The hip-hop veteran has been kicking style after style for years and he’s still here rocking over bombastic beats. His form of education-meets-entertainment, or edutainment, is his trademark, and like any reliable brand name, KRS-One gives his audience what they’ve come to expect from “The Teacha”. You almost know what a KRS-One album will sound like before he even begins his first verse.
Earlier this year, KRS-One dropped Adventures in Emceeing, a mixtape of sorts that retraced many of his usual steps. Adventures in Emceeing was good enough, and it did nothing to diminish KRS-One’s reputation as a topnotch lyricist, an “emcee”, but it also did little in the “adventure” department. Although it wasn’t as “adventurous” as it could have been, it was nevertheless entertaining and certainly worth a few listens.
KRS-One’s latest album, Maximum Strength 2008, follows suit as an enjoyable release with few surprises. It does, however, come highly recommended because, at 12 solid tunes and a running time of about 33 minutes, its contents are lean and taut. There just isn’t a lot of room for filler here, so the album moves quickly and seamlessly.
Did I mention it’s a pretty good listen? Because it actually is. Despite the fact that KRS-One is probably the least likely emcee to sneak up on us with curveball material, he knows how to put a seriously mean rhyme together. And, yes, KRS-One can probably out-rhyme a lot of aspiring hip-hop contenders in his sleep, and, yeah, he can outdo his performances here, but Maximum Strength 2008 actually has a quite a few things to offer.
This time out, he makes effective and efficient use of his favorite routines. His imposing, authoritative voice commands the boom bap production provided by Duane “Darock” Ramos, Dirt, and Oh No, and also works well on the softer tunes like “New York”, his ode to the Big Apple. That song, believe it or not, sports a sample of Tevin Campbell’s “Can We Talk”. That’s right, I said Tevin Campbell, the kid who sang for Prince and Quincy Jones back in the day. The same kid who made the Ashley Banks character pass out on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. On paper, it doesn’t sound like KRS-One’s voice should be anywhere near “Can We Talk” and a recording studio. But it works as one of the LP’s creative standouts, similar to Kurupt’s “Welcome Home” track from Streets Iz a Mutha (1999). The other mushy track, “Hip Hop”, isn’t as compelling in the hook department — way too sing-songy for me — but the verses are kind of hot. Sing-songy hooks aren’t always negatives, though.
Tolerable to good ones appear in the bump-n-clap opener “Beware” and the bouncy “Rockin’ Til’ the Morning”. KRS-One gets away with it, although I’ve always been skeptical of his singing. There are only a few rappers I can handle as singers, the main ones being: Lauryn Hill (of course), Cee-Lo Green, Queen Latifah (but not when she does jazz), Ladybug Mecca (formerly of Digable Planets), Phonte (currently of Little Brother), Mos Def (most of the time), Pharoahe Monch, and Andre 3000 (sometimes). I just don’t think of KRS-One when I think of someone belting out a soulful note. On the flipside, KRS-One occasionally brings out his reggae vibe, an embellishment he has frequently employed in the past with success. In total, it all sounds like vintage KRS-One, which means it is completely by the numbers, but it’s mostly a good look for the pioneer.
The same thing goes for the album’s subject matter. KRS-One doesn’t do “bling”, or “crack rap”, or anything related to “rims” or the car he’s driving. Rather, he preaches messages of self-reliance and social responsibility. Sometimes, he’ll use historical data to get his message across, as in “Pick It Up” when KRS-One’s traces the practice of democracy in “Western” culture to ancient Greece. At other times, he relies on the more fundamental method of coupling a strong rhyme pattern with a fly beat.
I say he “preaches” his messages because KRS-One has a tendency to come off as didactic and maybe even a little condescending. On his 2007 collaboration with fellow legend Marly Marl, Hip Hop Lives, KRS-One proceeded to break down the words “hip” and “hop” that comprise the compound word for the culture and musical genre:
Hip means to know
It’s a form of intelligence
To be hip is to be up-date and relevant
Hop is a form of movement
You can’t just observe a hop
You got to hop up and do it
When his lesson plans are on point, KRS-One inspires his audience to consider issues from different perspectives. When things go awry, he sounds like a bully. Maximum Strength 2008 finds a comfortable zone for KRS-One’s edutainment rap, loaded with enough swagger to satisfy the hip-hop heads who value lyricism above all else, even beats. The most exciting track is “Straight Through”, a frenetically paced romp along the lines of Black Thought’s “75 Bars” from The Roots’s Rising Down. Both songs, KRS-One’s and Black Thought’s, are reminiscent of something Big Daddy Kane might do. It’s fast, fearless, and furious — three characteristics of a classic KRS-One track.