KRS-One cuts a Cosby-esque figure on the back cover of his tenth solo album, Keep Right. Standing guard in front of a white chain-link fence, arms crossed, knitted tam twisted to the side, is the Blastmaster himself. His stern expression in the photograph aptly forecasts Keep Right‘s reprobation of Blastmaster-branded wrong hip-hop.
In May 2004, the iconic African-American comedian Bill Cosby harshly pronounced the wrongness of a generation of African-American youths — or, as Cosby gracefully put it, the “Shaniqua(s), Taliqua(s) and Mohammed(s),” you know, “dirty laundry.” Having caught a glance at the skid marks and whiffed the persistent mustiness in hip-hop, the onetime transient, early hip-hop innovator and Scott La Rock memorializer KRS-One hit the studio blasting. It’s just too bad he was shooting blanks.
In the Teacher’s far from humble opinion, pop-hop’s conspicuous consumption, drug use and distribution, and skill deficiency should be immediately relegated to the hamper. And like the conflicted Cos, KRS chastises those responsible — in this case wack rappers — on the album’s first single, “Let ‘Em Have It.”
Swedish beat maker Soul Supreme, whose uneven work is all over Keep Right, delivers his best on the up-tempo horn-heavy headbanger, “Let ‘Em Have It.” The song’s fast pace energizes KRS’s well-worn flow but falls short of inspiring his tired lyrics. Good intentions abound, but there are no gems and nary a hip-hop quotable.
The road to hell is long and laborious. At twenty-three tracks too long, Keep Right can boast of only six songs longer than three minutes. What remains are eight interludes — including shout-outs and sound-bites from veterans Afrika Bambaata and Boot Camp Clik’s Buckshot — and nine superficial compositions.
Mad Lion, a few no-name label mates and even G-Unit hookster Joe can’t keep the album afloat. L da Headtoucha makes a notable appearance on “Everybody Rise.” A student of the Bed-Stuy school of emceeing, L’s voice and delivery recall early Jay-Z or those slept-on Pitch Black cats. He handily outshines his teacher, whose thoughtful attempt to shout out his peeps Choco leads to an unfortunate, awkward and extended play on the word “chocolate,” accent on the “e.”
“And Then Again,” an anemic track your Kanye West-idolizing younger sibling could construct, features Ms. Melodie’s ex-husband talking Cosby-crazy. Obliviously out of touch, KRS-One declares, “The people want me back like they want the Arsenio Show.” The Arsenio Hall Show was cancelled a decade ago, two years after the last Cosby Show, one year before KRS-One’s last truly great album, 1997’s I Got Next. All three cultural arbiters have had their day and none are quite willing to acknowledge its passing.
Embittered KRS is not. He eschews Cosby’s elitism for his own brand of self-righteousness backed by a proven recorded and real-life commitment to social justice. Keep Right reflects this hallowed past and a dynamic wildly complex future in which KRS — pushed aside by the evolvers of this art form — is no longer its unofficial gatekeeper.