While it is indisputable that Run DMC are legendary figures in hip-hop, it is also hard to overlook the fact that the last time they released a truly worthwhile album was in 1988, with Tougher Than Leather. Since then, they've been bogged down in either trying to reinvent themselves, as with Back From Hell's faux-gangsterisms, or trying to prove their status as legends, as on the mixed-bag "comeback album" Down With the King.
Crown Royal is their seventh album, and, it's sad to say, they've picked up right where Down With the King left off, by using a whole album to try to convince listeners that they played an important role in hip-hop. Well, there's no doubt that they played an important role, but living in the past isn't going to get them too far here. On Crown Royal, Run DMC are looking back so much that their necks must be permanently turned in that direction. Not only does nearly every track attest to how legendary Run DMC are, nearly every track also quotes directly from at least one song off their first four albums. It gets downright pathetic, every song bringing out a strong feeling of déjà vu.
As on Down With the King, Run DMC's sole attempt to appeal to modern audiences centers around the multitude of guest stars. Every track except for one has a guest performer. Yet while Down With the King was a clear courting of the young hip-hop audience, on Crown Royal they're also trying to get the attention of young rock fans, with guests like Sugar Ray, Fred Durst of Limp Bizkit, and Kid Rock. The main problem with the use of guest musicians here is that none of them seem to have had any creative input whatsoever. These aren't collaborations, but testimonials, like when celebrities show up on the Home Shopping Channel to hock skin care treatments. Hear Jermaine Dupri rant about how Run DMC are too legendary to be ignored on one track, hear Kid Rock recite early Run DMC lyrics on another. In each case, the guest musicians are props, big names used to add to the album's success factor.
The high points of Crown Royal come in little moments. Run (or Rev. Run as he is now known) can still rhyme with the best of them, so at certain times when he finds the right beat, his verses are powerful. They'd work better if he had something to say, but still, they're the most enjoyable places in the album. DMC, on the other hand, seems to have lost his talent for being an MC. Though he hardly appears on most tracks, and doesn't appear at all on some, a fact that automatically marks this as an inferior Run DMC album, when he shows up he sounds slow, stilted and awkward.
Run DMC introduced me to hip-hop, as they did to many people who grew up in the early 1980s. They've proved themselves as legends, but if they want to continue creating even relatively valid music they need to sit down and do some soul-searching. It might seem sacrilegious to suggest, but, given the fact that Run is still in prime shape vocally and DMC clearly is not, I think it might be prime time for the good Reverend to find a new collaborator, someone with more creative ideas who is ready to push him in new directions. Whatever happens, I can't imagine that the hip-hop fans who are still following Run DMC's career will pay attention much longer, as long as they keep trying to recreate their past endeavors instead of pushing into the future.