There was a time, back in the late '80s, when the legendary Bronx rapper KRS-One was a candidate for the title of Greatest Rapper of All Time. Twenty-five years later, though, the self-anointed Blastmaster's latest long-player, The B.D.P. Album, suggests that compulsory retirement from the recording arena after 10 years in the rap game would be a good thing. At the very least, putting a cap on an artist's album count would stop some of the music's icons from continuing to release projects that make them come off like the genre's outdated uncles.
KRS-One still puts on one of the few vital live hip-hop experiences: His voice is commanding, his rap recitation skills are still sharp, and as long as he sticks to his hits -- whether those recorded with his Boogie Down Productions crew or his early solo work -- he delivers a rousing set. (He had been scheduled to preach his righteous rap gospel tonight at the Red Devil Lounge, but the show appears to have been canceled.) When KRS-One airs out his anthems, it's like experiencing a journey through the golden era: "Criminal Minded," "South Bronx," "The Bridge Is Over," "My Philosophy," "Jack Of Spades," "Duck Down," Sound Of Da Police." But since his solo albums started to get sloppy -- 1997's I Got Next being the start of the descent -- he's released music that largely sullies his legacy. And he's far from alone.
The problem is hip-hop's struggle to balance respect for its own history while keeping up with new sounds. Veteran rappers whose music helped define a certain era rarely manage to stay relevant. The production style, the slang, the popular rhyme patterns -- even the regional hot spots -- change so quickly in hip-hop that artists are left in limbo: If they embrace the sound they pioneered, they're inevitably labelled as outdated and past it; but when they attempt to keep up with the kids, they come off as old and out-of-touch.
The situation is made trickier by rap's consistent embrace of the energy of youth. Upcoming rappers don't so much eat up the generation before them as chew 'em to bits, spit 'em out, and then swagger off. At times it can be exhilarating: A teenage LL Cool J's first recorded raps were cocksure stuff. But it can also result in a situation like, say, West Coast gangsta pioneer Ice-T engaging in a beef with poppy young southern oik Soulja Boy. No one wins, but the older artist usually takes more of a loss -- and usually choses to record their dis rhymes over the more lackluster beats.
Jay-Z's career is a rare exception to this trend. A lot of the credentials supporting his claim to be rap's greatest (greatest alive, anyway) come from his ability to continue releasing music that sounds modern and up-to-date. This has been helped, of course, by his wealth and position in the industry. But, barring a few perky moments on Watch the Throne, would anyone's iTunes stash of Jay-Z tracks really be all the worse off if he'd actually retired after dropping The Black Album? That project, complete with the bombast of the Rick Rubin-helmed "99 Problems," dropped seven years after his Reasonable Doubt debut. You can make a solid argument that Jay-Z's essential output came within that period.
There's nothing wrong with embracing and supporting hip-hop nostalgia. Public Enemy deserve to be able to tour around the world off the back of It Takes A Nation Of Millions alone. Likewise for the Wu-Tang Clan with Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), Nas with Illmatic, and countless other iconic artists and albums through the years. But with most rappers unable exercise quality control for a full decade, and few able to claim five legitimately classic albums, wouldn't we all benefit from stronger but shorter recorded legacies?