Since he first came on the scene, KRS-One has consistently critiqued pop culture, not even sparing his fellow rappers. But unlike most of what has passed for commentary in mainstream rap, he doesn’t not boast in order to put others down. Instead, he calls out those who are not using the tool he believes it to be: a vehicle for raw, intelligent honesty, for street-level reportage, and for education. On Survival Skills, KRS and fellow legend Buckshot, report, educate, name names, all the while keeping the beats hard and true.
Some of the songs here take on easy targets, like the bling-obsessed rappers with programmed poses (“Robot,” “Murder 1” and “Oh Really”). But this is an assault on fear and laziness, one that digs looks deeper than just the on the mainstream surface. “Connection” and “Think of the Things” address the need for education, the need to not be ashamed of intelligence, the need to recognize the power that rap has to speak the truth in a way that can bring change. But neither KRS nor Buckshot are crabby old-schoolers content to slam the present for the golden age. “We Made It” and “Past Present Future” are inclusive and up to date and they’re a call for unity.
Survival Skills features several guest stars, including Havoc of Mobb Deep, Heltah Skeltah, Bounty Killer and Mary K. Blige (who turns in a disappointing, flat take on “The Way I Live”) and producers Black Milk, Ill Mind and 9th Wonder. It’s nice to hear them alongside one of the fathers of the game, who, like Buckshot, stills has the righteous rage and verbal skills to deliver cerebral street poems. Survival Skills is a call to arms, and a poetic, uncompromising one at that.