Only the fools who maintain a willful ignorance of hip hop's influence on pop culture would deny KRS-One (aka Kris Parker) his props. His combination of authority, longevity, and integrity is matched only by Sonic Youth, Neil Young, and a select handful of others (and Parker's never done anything as indulgent as Young's Arc or as cheesy as SY's Ciccone Youth). His life is the stuff of biopics: He rose from homeless shelters to be the leading politically aware rapper and frequent lecturer on the collegiate circuit. If he ran for the U.S. Senate, I'd vote for him in a second. Which doesn't mean I love all his recordings. Funk and intelligence are not always inextricably linked.
At times, Parker's righteous sanctimony overtakes his musical savvy, and a hip-hop sermon results, but not on I Got Next. It's Parker's ninth record, and his best. On most of his previous efforts, Parker invited listeners to a South Bronx-styled two-turntables-and-a-microphone function. However, on 1995's KRS-One, he enlisted the services of DJ Premier, whose sonic landscapes are among hip hop's most influential and readily identifiable sounds. He goes further on this recording, working with producers like DJ Muggs, Showbiz, and Puff Daddy. It's his most radio-friendly disc, but the accessibility sharpens -- rather than dulls -- the impact of his rhymes.
The first single, "Step Into a World (Rapture's Delight)," is typical of Parker's aims. The subtitle is a nifty play on words, and a reminder that in 1981, some stations played the novelty rap of the Sugar Hill Gang while others played Blondie's. Rather than looping the whole tune for a quick and easy backing track, he makes use of the breathy chorus (sung by Keva) as a foil for ferocious backbeats. The contrast works like that of Beth Orton's vocals with the Chemical Brothers. Then, in comes KRS, furiously advocating rhyme skills over marketing schemes. The diverse elements constitute a plea for unity without the usual appeals to civil rights-era romanticism. Parker, like the Fugees, understands the need to get beyond the boomerville divide of pop vs. serious music. On I Got Next, KRS-One changes his rallying cry from "One nation under a groove-based agenda" to "Party for your right to fight."
-- Martin Johnson
Carrying Your Love With Me
Another No. 1 George Strait album, and another reason to thank the Lord for not letting our hero junk his musical talents and take that legendary job he was offered designing cattle feed stations.
Unusually, Strait sounds like he's in some vague distress in these particular performances. His voice lacks resonance, and a Cash-like quiver occasionally surfaces. It may be just a drier recording than usual, but whatever it is, it's certainly not a bad thing. It brings out a new vulnerability in his interpretations. His heart-rending version of Vern Goswin's mournful divorce weepie "Today My World Slipped Away" comes with a nice retro string section and marks a departure from some of the milky, contemporary drool he had been entertaining recently. (Refer to, if you must, the previous hits "Carried Away" and the idiotic "Check Yes or No.")
Carrying Your Love With Me is a joy to listen to from start to finish, though you might do well to block out the somewhat rancid concept song "The Nerve" (which, incidentally, Strait sings beautifully). Strait can take sole credit for putting the western back in country in the early '80s, and here he revisits the straight-ahead Texas swing ("That's Me [Every Chance I Get]") and jocular honky-tonk ditties ("Won't You Come Home [And Talk to a Stranger]") he started with. The last radio smasheroo, "One Night at a Time," might, if not for the flawed sexiness of Strait's crooning, potentially threaten sanity with its repetitive vacation-song vibe and candied girlie '70s backing. However, Strait casts his subliminal easygoing-sorta-guy spell ("Go ahead, honey. Drive the way you want to drive. Did I mention I've made some new bookshelves?") and suddenly all manner of things seem like really good ideas, even when they really shouldn't be. Sometimes, the man is so low key he gives the impression of being someone who, despite everything, wouldn't presume to call himself a singer.
One of the special appeals of this artist is a lack of apparent vanity and stage histrionics. Yet this is the man whom the power-Joel cowboy act, Garth Brooks, acknowledges as his main inspiration. Just goes to show. George Strait is a state of mind.
-- Cath Carroll