The pairing of KRS-One and Marley Marl should be a momentous occasion in rap music. Back in 1987, the icons were adversaries in hip-hop’s arguably greatest battle. KRS claimed South Bronx supremacy, while Marley produced Queens borough anthems like “The Bridge.” Now, perhaps taking a cue from rivals turned collaborators Jay-Z and Nas, the former foes squash their beef from 20 years ago to drop Hip Hop Lives.
The disc starts off strong with the Blastmaster’s precise articulation on the piano-accented title track (“Hip is the knowledge, hop is the movement/Hip and hop is intelligent movement or relevant movement/We selling the music”). KRS’s lyrical dissertation continues with “Kill a Rapper,” a sly critique of hip-hop’s unsolved murder cases over a spine-chilling beat built on cinematic strings.
On paper, having Marley handle production duties throughout is a musical masterpiece in the making. Unfortunately, some of his stark creations are diluted by weak hooks and unimaginative sample loops that sound tepid beneath KRS’s confident flow. Buzzing, dissonant synths ruin the hardcore bravado on “Run the Streets,” while “I Am Hip-Hop” features anemic keyboard stabs. Even when Marley uses a piercing Latin horn loop on “Musica (Real Lies),” the track never reaches its artful aspirations.
Yet, all is not lost for the living legends. The duo manage to find their chemistry on tracks like “Rising to the Top” and “On Top of My Game.” On the latter, Marley flips a clever Jay-Z vocal sample, inspiring Kris to proclaim, “KRS ease up, freeze up—you wish/Come on, let’s do this/Ain’t you kinda tired of the same five sex raps?/You don’t hear me a lot, but you shouldn’t forget that/I’m on top of my game.”
Indeed, KRS’s strident delivery remains intact, and Marley manages to squeak out a few more sonic gems, but Hip Hop Lives never lives up to its bold title. Relying too heavily on past glory, few new-school fans will appreciate the fact these two are still alive and spittin’. —BRETT JOHNSON