For his first album in four years, KRS-One was faced with the same dilemma that his contemporaries from hip-hop's so-called golden age (circa 1987) have had to deal with, to varying degrees of success. Following the major label A&R line that conscious rap is no longer relevant to the rap-buying market, he could have gone the way Rakim did for his comeback and sublimated his longtime "edutainment" agenda under a much easier to market tough-guy materialism. Or he could have stuck to the shtick, refusing to integrate either beats or rhyme schemes into the current zeitgeist, as did Chuck D for his Public Enemy reunion. Smartly, KRS chose the third path, similar to the one taken by De La Soul last year: Push the production in new directions, distill your long-standing message to its essence (allowing you to rearticulate it without rehashing) and leave the gunplay and other clubland tomfoolery to the young bucks. His ethos, unwavering over his 15-year-plus career, is put into the plainest of terms on "Hot": "I study the ways of God/You studyin' titties and ass."
The beats though, created mostly by KRS himself, have noticeably backed off of the relentlessly straightforward breakbeats of 1993's Return of the Boom Bap, an album title that coined the name of a hard-nosed production aesthetic embraced by the music's more purist enthusiasts. The heavily chopped-up, mechanistic drums on "Attendance" and "Why" stir up no nostalgia for South Bronx boogaloo dancers -- more menacing and hollow-sounding than the recognizable funk loops of his classics such as "Jack of Spades" or "You Must Learn," there isn't anything throwback about the music on The Sneak Attack.
Because of the urgency of his lyrics, KRS's tracks have often sacrificed simple listenability for unambiguous edification -- many say his style is just too heavy-handed, too preachy. Here he manages to expound his favorite tenet, which is basically hip-hop gnosticism -- "you are not doing hip-hop, you are hip-hop" -- without belaboring it at the expense of the almighty head-nod. By syncing his words tightly to the drums and sinking his vocal parts deeply into the mix, he doesn't run into the problem of dominating the instrumental, using it only as a platform to make his point. Maintaining the balance between rap for rap's sake and rap for enlightenment's sake as well as he has since splitting with Boogie Down Productions, The Sneak Attack is a vital chapter in The Teacha's distinguished tenure.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.