I’m not sure what constitutes the hip hop ‘canon’ - I would say that this is one of the very greatest hip hop albums ever released but it seems to be a slightly forgotten record, perhaps because it was slightly a record out of time - one the last great albums of the ‘golden age’, recorded by an MC who had been around since pretty much the start and just before the music became the commercial behemoth it was to become. It didn’t sell well at the time and pretty much disappeared from view for a time, but there is a sense that it has been acknowledged since for what it is. There may be better hip hop albums but I wouldn’t want to be put under pressure and asked to name ten of them.
Mostly it’s great because KRS is a seriously great MC, with fabulous control of tempo and rhyme, amazing clarity of delivery, an incredibly wide range of styles and techniques and an ability to write on almost any topic you can think of. Most of all he has an undefinable quality of ‘authority’ that makes you sit up and listen. A lot of the lyrics are old school rap braggadocio, but they are utterly compelling - he sets out the history of hip hop, his part in it and the shortcomings of (almost) everyone else in a way that is hard to argue with. At the same time he is demonstrating his skills in a way that supports his arguments - he mainly is punchy, plosive and sharp but he can be conversational, or sing song, or can dip utterly convincingly into patois and dancehall stylings.
As well as the hip hop history he does righteous rage (Black Cop, Sound of Da Police), sort of romance (Brown Skin Woman), an outrageous, complex song-long metaphor about dreaming he is a blunt (I Can’t Wake Up) and simple party stuff (Mad Crew). And after all of that, at the end of the record he drops one of the most profound, powerful, ‘conscious’ lyrics ever in hip hop on Higher Level. How many rappers have been brave enough even 20 odd years later to place part of the blame for the situation of black Americans on black churches?
Musically it’s great too. The main thrust is of course the powerful, punchy ‘boom bap’ itself. As sampling technology developed hip hop at this time was increasingly using extended, often over-familiar and over-identifiable samples. There’s none of this here - everything is short and to the point and even if you know the sample you probably won’t recognise it. The whole thing bounces along like a party record but has hidden depths. DJ Premier does some of his best work on this record (and that is saying something). His productions are ‘jazzy’ but always tough and on point. KRS’s own productions are sparser and harder edged, eventually (on Uh Oh) pretty much nothing but the beat itself.
It’s a great record. Hope it has some other fans on here.