Happy 20th Anniversary to KRS-One’s I Got Next, originally released May 20, 1997.
Nothing lasts forever. Thirty years ago, Lawrence “KRS-One” Parker debuted as the lead rapper of Boogie Down Productions a.k.a. BDP, with their 1987 debut album Criminal Minded. It was a work of sheer lyrical and musical genius, and it started KRS-One on the path to become one of the greatest emcees to ever touch a mic. Over the next decade, he recorded albums that were lyrically and stylistically superior, as well as politically revolutionary. KRS was a commanding presence in the studio, on stage, and in the lecture halls. He was a pioneer, and his face belongs on hip-hop’s Mt. Rushmore. Twenty years ago, when he released I Got Next, his third solo album, it looked like he really was going to be here forever. Forever and ever. But in reality, I Got Next was likely the last album of his that approached greatness.
KRS’s music had started getting less overtly political ever since BDP “disbanded” in 1993. Yes, there were songs like “Black Cop,” “Sound of the Police,” and “Free Mumia” scattered over his two previous albums, but since KRS “went solo,” he started to narrow his focus towards exhibiting his rhyme skills and extolling means of self-improvement. The majority of I Got Next concerns the preservation of hip-hop culture as a whole, which KRS viewed as very much a socially conscious goal.
I Got Next was KRS’s first album after creating the Temple of Hip-Hop organization in 1996. By that time, KRS wasn’t new to the rodeo when it came to founding hip-hop related organizations, as he had been the driving force behind the late ’80s Stop the Violence Movement and the early ’90s Human Education Against Lies (H.E.A.L.) organization. The Temple of Hip-Hop was particularly ambitious, as KRS envisioned the organization as one that would maintain and promote hip-hop culture.
The creation of the organization, and later the release of I Got Next, coincided with the shift with how hip-hop was perceived, marketed, and consumed. Hip-Hop was on its way to becoming a billion dollar industry. Select artists were selling millions of records. Labels were pouring millions into promotion. Hip-Hop records were receiving daytime spins on mainstream radio and play on MTV (back when MTV still played videos, that is). In the midst of all of this, KRS made teaching and preserving the essence and tenets of hip-hop culture his priority. In the face of growing commercialism, he attempted to “bust back with consciously charged art.”
As a whole, I Got Next is a solid and worthy entry into KRS’s extensive body of work. “I Got Next/Neva Haddam Gun” is a stripped-down, bare-bones yet upbeat track. It has the atmosphere of a smoke-filled cipher or late-night basement jam. KRS flexes numerous flows and lyrical deliveries in the three-part song, beginning with an a capella verse set to noise from a basketball court. He then starts of the second part with, “I got that rip track, flip that, underground rap / When I kick back, most of what I'm hearing be weak / So I speak through beats and the streets as I teach / I impeach, through speech, each lyric leech I reach / Have a seat in the lecture, nothing can protect you, hard is the texture / Of the mic wrecka rocking your sector / Better than ever, remember I am no beginner.” He also deftly handles a quick beat-switch, changing the subject matter from pure lyrical gymnastics to admonishing a rapper for playing the role of a glib gangster on record. He laughs as the studio thug eventually gets tested and found wanting, jacked for his car by a pair of real criminals with parts of real steak knives.
Meanwhile, KRS tries to recreate the old school, park jam environment with “Heartbeat.” KRS, Redman, and DJ/radio personality turned rapper Angie Martinez each take turns rapping over the break from Taana Gardner’s dance/disco classic of the same name. Amid the added crowd noise and mic feedback, Redman works crowd control between verses. The track plays like a more polished version of the “The Original Way” from BDP’s final album Sex and Violence.
KRS uses the slow rolling “Come to Tha Party” to explore the changes in hip-hop music, as the primary ways to consume it had gone from the streets to the commercial radio. He decries the lack of balance between the representation of “player” and “conscious” hip-hop with most media outlets. He also encourages his fellow emcees to embrace their roles as embodiments of hip-hop music: “Slightly eccentric / But everything's authentic, when I said, ‘I’m hip-hop,’ I meant it / MC want to debate the issue, but false though / If they studied they would see that they are hip-hop also.”
I Got Next is best known for “Step Into a World (Rapture’s Delight),” the album’s second single and one of KRS’s better songs of the ’90s. The track is KRS’s treatise about the state of hip-hop in the late ‘’90s, and, moreover, how he sees himself fitting in, advancing his own agenda of valuing hard work at the craft above all else. Throughout the track he emphasizes the importance of substance over gimmicks, with lines like, “No bogus hocus-pocus, I bring back to focus / skills, if you notice, my position is lotus / Now quote this, MCs are just hopeless / Thinking record sales make them the dopest.”
The beat is provided by Jesse “Third Eye” West, who takes the infamous “Champ” break by The Mohawks and expertly chops it into something even more upbeat and funky. The chorus is inspired by Blondie’s 1980 song “Rapture,” one of the earliest rock/pop songs to incorporate elements of hip-hop into it, thus exposing many different types of listeners to the culture. KRS puts on a lyrical clinic on the song, again switching deliveries effortlessly and packing each bar with words of power: “Tip-topping lyrics we dropping, but styles can be forgotten / So we bring back the raw hip-hopping / Just like the records and tapes you be copping / Cop some breakdancing, boogie popping, and locking.” And, of course, he reiterates his place at the top of the emcee food chain: “I’m not saying I’m number one. Uhh, I’m sorry, I lied / I’m number one, two, three, four and five / Stop wasting your money on marketing schemes / And pretty packages pushing dreams to the fiends.”
I Got Next has no shortage of high-powered lyrical exhibitions. The album opens with “The MC,” KRS’s masterful dissertation on the importance of mic control. Over a string-heavy track produced by Domingo, the Blast-Master is in rare form, rapping: “I laugh ’cause I mastered the craft, MC / In sound clash I'm the first and last MC / It's sort of like Jim Carrey throwing that mask to me / I black out and wake up to catastrophe / Three MCs dead from the sound blowing out massively, wow! / Who am I? The MC / Untouchable, can’t be caught off guard with fast tracks or slow tracks / Ass cracks get waxed to the max, MC's pack raps for all tracks.” KRS later exhibits the same level of power and finesse on “Blowe,” a track produced by Showbiz where Redman appears for a second time, this time just contributing the chorus.
I Got Next is largely apolitical, as with many of KRS’s solo albums on Jive. The sole exception is “Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop,” an ominous, string-infused track orchestrated by DJ Muggs. The song comes across as a cross between “9mm Goes Bang” and “100 Guns” from his Criminal Minded and Edutainment (1990) albums, respectively. KRS raps from the perspective of a drug dealer who must navigate bloody interactions with rival crews, crooked cops, and corrupt DEA agents, only to meet with a tragic end.
KRS keeps things lighter on “A Friend,” a jazzy Showbiz-produced track about the happiness that comes from companionship and trust. He expounds on the importance of having people in his life who have his back, to not only help him navigate the music industry, but also to help him just chill and cut loose when necessary.
I Got Next does have one or two outright clunkers. The worst is “Just to Prove a Point,” KRS’s downright unlistenable attempt to create a rock song, featuring his ill-fated attempts to sing, but mostly just shout, over a very dreadful, very late-1990s guitar riff. It may be KRS’s worst song during his Jive Records years.
While “Just to Prove a Point” may have been forgotten to history, the “Step Into a World” remix, featuring Puff Daddy, lived on in infamy. Truthfully, the song isn’t that bad, but its intentions came across worse than its execution. Here was the man who touted himself as the living personification of Real Hip-Hop, the flesh and bone embodiment of the Four Elements, the emcee who spent much of the previous 45 minutes of the album championing the art of the emcee and the need to bring hip-hop music back to its essence, rapping side-by-side with someone who symbolized compromising the musical principles to the mainstream in hopes of making money.
Some components of the song itself are very much at peace with the rest of I Got Next, particularly its overall house party/park jam feel. The beat incorporates portions of Showbiz and A.G.’s “Soul Clap” and Biz Markie’s “Nobody Beats the Biz,” both timeless, bona fide, and straight-up hip-hop club bangers. KRS even opens his first verse by quoting T La Rock’s “It’s Yours.” But there is also a lot to really dislike. For one, Puffy is notably and unsurprisingly awful. When he was at his best, Puff Daddy was merely a serviceable rapper; Puffy is not at his best here. The lazy “Just show me the money!” punchline is particularly cringe-inducing; even a Super Lover Cee and Casanova Rud reference (“Choreographer causing your funky dope maneuver”) can’t save him. And, of course, his ad-libs are omnipresent and insufferable.
It’s easy to say that removing Puff’s vocal presence from the song would solve everything, but KRS has a couple of cringe-inducing moments as well. He notably proclaims himself the “scholar, who gets the dollars” and that “with no dinero, you’re zero.” It doesn’t exactly jibe with the “I’m not the run of the mill, ’cause for the mill I don’t run” sentiments from the original version. But still, the song would have just been a goofy but innocuous club remix if someone had just given Diddy the wrong directions to the studio.
I Got Next symbolized the end of the second phase of KRS’s career, as it was the last album he released on Jive Records, where he had spent the majority of his career. He’s spent the past 20 years working to negotiate the music industry landscape where major labels have become an endangered species. He briefly worked as the Vice-President of A&R for Reprise Records, but ultimately quit after two years.
KRS has released close to 20 albums since I Got Next, from straight-ahead releases on KOCH Records to collaborations with Boot Camp Clik’s Buckshot. He’s also done entire albums with producers like Marley Marl, Showbiz, and True Master. Sadly, none of these albums ever really came close to I Got Next in terms of quality. Mostly he’s been hampered by sub-par production. And in the instances where he secured decent production (like Survival Tactics, the aforementioned album with Buckshot) he’s turned in lackluster rhymes. Earlier this month, he released The World Is MIND, which is arguably his best album in a long, long time.
It’s worth noting that KRS has stayed committed to the Temple of Hip-Hop, though its overall success and impact can be debated. KRS has always been an eccentric guy, and he’s often found himself off in the weeds when it’s come to promoting the Temple. Celebrating “Hip-Hop Appreciation Week” during the week of May was a good start, but efforts to get “Hip-Hop” recognized as a religion by the United Nations came across as ridiculous. And he’s not been without controversy outside of his role with the Temple of Hip-Hop; his response to allegations of child molestation by hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa were particularly tone-def and borderline offensive.
Despite these hiccups, KRS’s legacy as one of the best to ever do it remains secure. His run of albums from Criminal Minded to I Got Next is among the best ever in hip-hop. And truthfully, he’s spent the last two decades embodying the virtues that he espoused on I Got Next: a fierce commitment to lyricism and the valuing of substance over hype. That’s a legacy to be proud of.