While KRS-One in no way defines the new Heavyweight Dub Champion record, Rise of the Champion Nation, his contribution to three tracks deserves special consideration. The man is a pioneer in the hip-hop industry, and he continues to put forth excellent material: 2007's Hip-Hop Lives with Marley Marl but one example, with the following year's Adventures in Emceein' being another. He's stumbled over hurdles before (Spiritual Minded exemplified his preachy tendencies), but here he clears them easily. The bridge he's over.
All in all it's a simple formula: KRS connects. He's got the bravado of Guru and the political awareness of Chuck D, though those two have faltered over the past years, relying on previous fame without the beats to back them up. Yet the man once called Lawrence Krishna Parker (Kris Parker for short) is best when observing and not preaching. His faith in music is more universal and important than his talking about faith during music; the latter has the tendency to segregate, while the former can bring more meaning to everyone. That's the energy he blesses the HDC album with.
Not that that man is a mountain; ground zero is the fierce production throughout this San Francisco-based collective's fifteen tracks. Once the obligatory introduction is over, "Arrival" forces you to involuntarily pump your fist. KRS is joined by the ragga swagger of Stero-Lion, who poignantly appears throughout the album; A.P.O.S.T.L.E.'s moniker is too long to comment on, but his sound isn't: he's dope, and provides some of the best lyrics. This track, which somehow uses an electric guitar tastefully (a feat they repeat, mostly to their benefit), is exemplary of their vibe: a lot going on with plenty of space. They sway their programmed beats well, and punctuate ferociously with bass and kick.
The album's bright spot occurs midway: the ten-minute stretch of "Dawn" into "Rise," both sharing a similar tempo and timbre. While a whole host of characters show up, worth noting is Brooklyn's Dr. Israel appearing alongside his soulful soulmate, Lady K (she appears three times). Doc has long been one of the most inventive reggae artists going; 2005's Patterns of War, which introduced Lady K, still features some of the best lyrics and beats in any reggae effort of the young century. When "Dawn" subsides and "Rise" commences, Kris drops it: "This is not a club/it's a temple that I'm preaching in." And yet, as previously stated: not preachy; the temple is your head stuffed with earbuds. His message, as always, is positive, and combined with the searing soundscape backing him up, rings apocalyptic.
And that's the actual crux of the Champion Nation: a conversion, the ending of an era, a new dawn, and so forth. They borrow dub elements like Dub Trio borrows them (and provoke images like Cormac McCarthy promotes them), adding rock and electronica to their heady (yet not overtly heavy) mix; one clip in their PR bundle correctly dubs them dubtronica. Their message is a fusion of hopeful and bleak, and within that balancing act they seek and often find a musical meeting ground. Often does not imply always. At times the record becomes sophomoric: "Destroy the Industry" is about a decade too late to rage against the machine. The hook: Destroy the industry/Kill the DJ/Burn the radio for the bullshit they play and so on. You could probably guess the rest and be correct. Too bad; the palate of sounds underneath the lyrics is solid. Something similar happens when spoken word interludes emerge, and they often flounder some beats--you don't need drum 'n bass to seem diverse.
While all beats are created by a founding trio--Resurrector, Patch, and Totter Todd--the band is constantly "evolving," with members dropping in and out when appropriate. Their vision is tattooed, dreadlocked, and black; it's dark and hard, steel and concrete and carbon. Still, no great art is unbalanced, and when at their best, this band does achieve greatness. Their hope might feel bitter to the taste, but only because they are correctly reflecting reality. By the glean of their astute and painstaking cultural observations, we are invited to join into their dance. It may require we pound our fists and wave our heads--their trance is fitful, not wistful. If you're willing to step inside the circle, it may well be worth your time.