Sunday, October 28, 2012

Public Enemy "The Evil Empire Of Everything" (Enemy Records)

Perhaps inspired by Bart and Friends having knocked out not one but two EPs in a mere three months (EPs now nestling contentedly between the Bardots and Bathory in our record collection), Public Enemy have deigned to drop two whole albums of sprawling post-apocalyptic hip-hop within the same timeline. "Evil Empire" is effectively the 'sister' record to this summer's largely triumphant "Most Of My Heroes", and while it may not be quite as startlingly good, there is, as ever, enough here to pay back your investment.

Having been instrumental in instilling consciousness in rap in the first place (as KRS-One noted on "Outta Here"), Public Enemy are hardly going to forsake one of their greatest legacies, and so the new LP inevitably picks up on some of the predecessor record's themes (from rap's descent into bling-encrusted ghetto parody, to the lessons of the killing of Trayvon Martin) as well as taking wider potshots at the Evil Empire of Everything itself (the E.E. of E. is, of course, America, but all is not as heavy-handed as that may sound: the whole point Chuck is making is that *it doesn't have to be* that way, hence the album's self-explanatory sub-title - which goes back to that man KRS and his mantra "you must learn" - "the cheapest price to pay... is attention"). But unlike the dyed-in-the-wool MC collaborators on the earlier record, there's a broader sweep of musical co-conspirators on display here: the likes of Henry Rollins, Ziggy Marley (following Chuck's righteous appropriation of "Get Up, Stand Up" for the last album, its sequel here is inevitably called "Don't Give Up The Fight"), Tom Morello and sax legend Gerard Albright.

One standout cut is "Icebreaker" (the ICE in the title being the United States' Immigration Customs Enforcement). It features a host of MCs, with Mexican rhymer Sekreto particularly impressing: his bars got us thinking about how we'd never listened to Spanish-language rapping before, which seems odd given how much French and even Italian hip-hop we've enjoyed, especially when those genres took off (OK then, peaked) in the late 1990s. Thematically, PE are firming up on the wider sentiments of the earlier song "1" - one planet, no borders - but the lyrics themselves focus on the Mexican border and how debate over immigration is all about making political capital, rather than the effectiveness (or otherwise) of border control.

"Beyond Trayvon", another of the stronger tracks, features verses from the children of three of the PE entourage, including Professor Griff's boy: the power of the song - and, indeed, of the whole incident amongst many black Americans - is in how conscious they all are that it could have been them.

Songs like "Everything" and "Fame" hark back to "Most Of My Heroes"' universal themes, decrying conspicuous consumption and the seeking of fame for fame's sake: but it's the laid-back and soulful "Everything" which deserves closer examination. It's rather a departure from Public Enemy production norms: Chuck, apparently having imagined how Otis Redding might 'rap' "A Lovers' Tale", adapts his normally tempestuous meter into perhaps his first ever *lilt*, accompanied by the super-soothing sound of Sheila Broady's singing. The anti-materialism message is clear, but not over-sentimentalised: and it revisits the ideas explored in his 1990s solo single "No", which set its face even then against the compulsory Rolex and the obligatory Rolls.

And then there's "Riotstarted", which goes back much further than merely the previous album for inspiration: it uses lyrics from "Rightstarter", from Public Enemy's first ever LP, "Yo! Bum Rush The Show", just as this year's Paralympic summer hit sensation "Harder Than You Think" revisited lines from the same record's "P.E. #1").

But the most fun to be had comes not necessarily from the interesting experiments, or the callbacks to past records, nor even the exploration of the record's overarching "evil empire" theme. It flows from the tracks that, musically, would have fitted best on "Most Of My Heroes" and which epitomise PE's rediscovered, funky and horn-flecked back-to-basics approach. These include the too-brief "Notice (Know This)" which, just like the previous LP's "Catch The Thrown", has Chuck kicking chunks out of Jay-Z and Kanye West's indescribably self-absorbed celebrations of high-end lifestyle (Chuck is all the more angry with them by dint of the fact that he admires their talents: his beef is not with their skills, but with their lack of integrity and vision). As with "Catch The Thrown", "Notice" works so well because while you can sense that Chuck *is* angry, he doesn't do what any other pumped-up MC would do and make a vituperative 'answer' record that just flails hate straight back where it came from. No, he uses reason, restraint and the power of argument to respond to sentiment he doesn't agree with. That, in this genre and in these times, is a true novelty.

Downsides ? If we're hunting for them, then of course the quickest way to get there is to see which songs feature the biggest contribution from Flavor Flav. As you'll have garnered by now, we are not the biggest Flav fans, given that his shtick started to wear thin circa 1986 (nor have we forgotten that priceless moment of Chuck visibly glancing at his watch while Flav was merrily showboating at Brixton Academy a few years back).
 
Which I guess means we're with Professor Griff on the whole Flav thing (Griff, when talking about Flav for that excellent BBC4 documentary not too long ago, really did do a convincing impression of the angriest man ever). Inevitably, therefore, our view on the obligatory solo Flavor Flav track, "31 Flavors", is that it adds nothing to the album whatsoever. The other mis-step on the record is "Broke Diva", a lamentably weak riff on gold-diggers which clashes with the rest of "Evil Empire" in pretty much every conceivable way (to be fair to Chuck, it's meant to be no more than a gentle dig, a dis aimed at women who live beyond their means, but that's a subtlety that dissipates when Flav is on the mic and when at the back of your mind you recall the faintly misogynistic side to the young PE that John Peel, for example, wrote about around the time that "Sophisticated Bitch" was re-labelled plain "Sophisticated").

Luckily, after that low the record finishes with a re-jigged version of 2010's wonderful single and Chuck's 50th birthday celebration, "Say It Like It Really Is", a reminder of the true power and glory of Public Enemy:

"the fact remains that when Chuck opens his mouth, you *listen*... thankfully the bulk of the song is devoted purely to furious scratching, a tankingly great repeated "trunk of funk" of a hook... and Chuck's confirmation that he's still more interested in bringing hip-hop to the world ("I just got back from SO-WE-TO") than "popping champagne", or having singing on his records. So long as Chuck D is in such imperious form, the idiots have no chance of winning."

Just as the Fall's "50 Year Old Man" perfectly captured the essence of Mark E. Smith at half a century young, "Say It Like It Really Is" does the same for Chuck D. In stark contrast to Flav, and to many of the current pretenders to his East Coast throne, Chuck remains a symbol of everything that can be inspiring about hip-hop (and not just lyrically: don't forget his Bomb Squad role as "Carl Ryder", either). When we listened to PE records as teenagers, we actually learned stuff: about history, about society, about foreign policy. Hell, we still learn such things from them now. It's hard to see how today's teenagers can achieve the same so accessibly, so danceably, so funkily, although we'd genuinely be delighted to be told we have that all wrong. In the meantime, D is still, indubitably, as he told us on "Bring The Noise", "Public Enemy number one".

So know this: the more you lot continue to ignore P.E., the more we're going to carry on going on about them.

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