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KRS-One - Keep Right

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Artist: KRS-One

Album: Keep Right

Label: Grit

Review date: Aug. 30, 2004

If you’re not a cable news junkie, you probably missed Tim Russert referee a no-barbs-barred debate between New York Times columnist Paul Krugman and Fox News pundit Bill O’Reilly on CNBC three weeks ago. Russert, I assume, brought the two pundits together for a battle of the critical colossuses, with Krugman looking like a sentry of the left guard in his rumpled blazer and goatee, and O’Reilly flaring conservative indignation every time he pointed his finger. But when Krugman questioned O’Reilly about the conservatism Fox News and “The O’Reilly Factor” blatantly preaches, O’Reilly – who has consistently shied from being labeled a Republican – fluffed that he is not conservative but is, in his words, a “traditionalist,” meaning that he is a cultural conservative but not a political one.

For the last 10 years or so, hip hop – the “gangsta rap” that O’Reilly regularly hangs and beats like a piñata – has hosted a minority of old-school and underground artists who have frowned upon mainstream rap’s glorifications of sex and violence. These rappers and artists, who have included Talib Kweli and Chuck D, would probably blush at being labeled conservative or value-oriented rappers, if such titles existed. Instead, many have identified themselves in a manner similar to how O’Reilly claims to be a “traditionalist”; conscious rappers, as perhaps evidenced most strongly by Common on his 1994 classic “I Used to Love Her,” insist that they are throwbacks to the supposedly real and authentic hip hop of the mid-to-late 1980s that was more socially responsible in content. But even if they claim to be only traditional, in light of MTV and BET’s iced-out libertines, conscious rappers vamping old-school hip hop can come off quite conservative. And right now, there may be no other “traditionalist” rapper more conservative by hip hop’s standards than KRS-One.

KRS-One, without a doubt one of the greatest writers and thinkers to come out of hip hop’s artistic and cultural movement, has been fermenting a strong brew of “traditionalist” hip-hop since his 1997 single “Step Into A World,” a banger than blended Debbie Harry’s aged vocal chords with a distinctively new school thump. In the five albums since, KRS has moved farther backwards in an attempt to recapture his Boogie Down chops and, as his quasi-religious Temple of Hip Hop project suggests, whatever substantive values old school hip-hop offered.

The cover of KRS’ new album, Keep Right, a black arrow pointing you know where, is as representative of KRS’ move towards hip-hop conservatism as is his music’s old-school revival. If there is a central theme of Keep Right, a choppy collection of 24 songs and interludes that feels less like a polished album than a flat KRS live show, it’s that mainstream hip hop has lost its way, and needs to return to its old-school roots. On “You Gon Go?” KRS mocks today’s mainstream hip hop reliance of image over substance. “KRS – you ever wonder why he’s so hot?” he asks. “It’s because he’s not hot, yo, he’s hip hop.” A few minutes later, KRS takes pains to give a shoutouts to “South Bronx,” “My Philosophy,” and other singles he produced under his former Boogie Down Productions guise. The lesson learned? KRS does not need to change to fit in with today’s video-heavy hip hop - today’s hip hop, rather, needs to return back to him. It’s conservatism, par excellence. Which is not to say that KRS will be sitting in Madison Square Garden for the Republican Convention. Far from it – as far as his political ideology goes, KRS is just a shade to the right of the revolucionarios in Dead Prez. KRS, rather, is conservative in his quest for reinstating the austerity of old-school hip hop.

The problem with Keep Right is not that KRS has lost his skills – I would still put my money on KRS in a battle against just about any MC. The problem is that KRS has become so disaffected with the glint of contemporary hip hop’s sensationalism and sub-par talent, he has decided to dig whatever gold still left from his Boogie Down Productions heyday. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be much to mine. By playing the “traditionalist” and revisiting his old style and material – he updates his 1988 “Illegal Business” to indict members of the current Bush administration – KRS sounds out of touch. And because of the album’s “tradtionalism,” KRS commits perhaps the greatest crime a hip-hop artist can commit: he’s boring. Gone is the wit and sarcasm that made KRS more than an angry barnstormer. All that’s left is a caustic and predictable man. A hip-hop Bill O’Reilly, if you will.

By Ben Yaster

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