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Review: Public Enemy, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back

4.5

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Public Enemy, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back

One time someone asked me who my favorite rap artist was. Mentally flipping through a list that included Missy Elliott and Kanye West, and not wanting to seem either too stupid or too gay, I blurted out, “Public Enemy.” After popping in a Lil Wayne remix, this person arched his eyebrows and looked down. “Public Enemy? They’re trouble.” Well, yeah, that’s the whole idea. Still recording after 20 years, the group’s call-it-like-it-is ethos remains intact, even though Chuck D has resorted to collaborating with Moby and using bad puns like “Head Wide Shut” to get his message across. As the group has grown up, so has hip-hop: While Public Enemy may have cleared the way for everyone from Eminem to M.I.A., the mix of outrage and anarchic humor that once defined their brand of political hip-hop no longer has a place in a genre that has thoroughly saturated pop culture not just stateside, but in about every other industrialized country too.

The death knell of hip-hop’s relevance came earlier this year when the Black Eyed Peas’ will.i.am released the video for his song “Yes We Can,” a humorless PSA-in-disguise for Barack Obama starring a bunch of famous people like John Legend, Common, and Scarlett Johansson. It wasn’t exactly a rap song (it wasn’t really a song at all), but it represents what rap has become. Polemics like “Fuck tha Police” and “Fight the Power” have given way to embarrassingly earnest and stilted political music with no room for antics: Eminem leading us “through the darkness” in “Mosh”; Ludacris and West shilling for Al Gore at Live Earth. These efforts take their cue from Public Enemy, but they’re self-consciously aware of their new position in the pop marketplace. Instead of battling their way from the bottom up, they are thoroughly perched at the top with all the other superstars, looking down.

So it’s hard not to approach the 20th anniversary of Public Enemy’s sophomore album and magnum opus, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, with a little bit of bitterness and a lot of nostalgia. It was the first time a hip-hop album had topped The Village Voice‘s Pazz & Jop poll, at a time when a major rap artist could say “Don’t believe the hype” without any hint of irony. Which isn’t to say the genre isn’t going places: After releasing her own sophomore album, Kala, the industry already wants to anoint M.I.A. the new queen of music that gives a shit. But Public Enemy and M.I.A. are very different artists who come from very different places. An artist who uses beats like weapons, M.I.A. has militant-chic appeal, but for all her record sales she’s not exactly trying to disrupt the mainstream; “Nobody wants to be dancing to political songs,” she said in an interview before the release of her debut in 2004.

In hindsight, it’s best to see Public Enemy as the first and maybe only successful hip-hop group whose music extended directly from their politics, and not the other way around. Born into activism and influenced by the now-outmoded ideas of Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam, Chuck D didn’t just unsettle the middle class—he lobbed a “loud, obnoxious” bomb at it, to steal a phrase from Rolling Stone‘s review of It Takes a Nation in its list of 500 Greatest Albums. Public Enemy stole from rock in more ways than sound: They adopted the bratty swagger of a punk band, filtered it through a DJ’s turntable, and wrote about what it was like to be black. The success of It Takes a Nation was, in part, a product of its own insistence; on “Bring the Noise,” the closest thing to a Chuck D manifesto, he defies the listener, black radio stations, and rock critics alike to pay attention: “Whatcha gonna do?/Rap is not afraid of you.”

Calling Public Enemy “underground” is a misnomer. Though they agitated authority, their universal beats spoke to anyone and everyone with simple honesty. It was easy, even natural, to see Do the Right Thing‘s frustrated Brooklyn nobodies bumping to “Fight the Power.” Chuck D uses It Takes a Nation as a sounding board. The famously hectic, swerving beats, samples, and sirens form the backdrop to his urgent political protest: At the same time they seduce, distract, and confuse the picture, they also force you to listen to the words he’s spinning. The classic Public Enemy song (“Bring the Noise,” “Don’t Believe the Hype”) starts with a sample that forms the basis for Chuck D’s sinewy stream of consciousness. Eventually, Flavor Flav, playing comic relief, will cut in riffing on a situation or a question (“Yo, Chuck, they’re saying we’re too black, man”), Chuck will answer, and so on. It feels like a busy conversation or a raucous party, but above the white noise, there’s always Chuck D, making sense of things. If hip-hop is “CNN for black people,” as the rapper suggested, then he’s its ultimate pundit.

Like a much funnier version of Green Day’s “American Idiot,” It Takes a Nation purposefully plays on paranoia about government, cops, and the media. Chuck D talks in street codes (he likes to call people “suckers”), but his lyrics build surprisingly complex narratives out of simple observations. On “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos,” an annoying draft letter becomes a symbol of the U.S. government’s handed-down tradition of slave-labor tactics: “I wasn’t wit’ it, but just that very minute/It occurred to me/The suckers had authority.” The static-like beats and jumbled words in “She Watch Channel Zero?!” stand in for television’s manufactured truth (the album’s intro famously says “the revolution will not be televised”), and “Night of the Living Baseheads” likens crack-cocaine use to an infectious beat. Above it all hangs Malcolm X’s quote, “Too black, too strong,” which Public Enemy plays twice and embraces as its own mantra. If the group plays to stereotype by acting like an angry mob, they also reclaim their outrage and use it to subvert wrongheaded ideas about black life.

It Takes a Nation is universally taken to be the best rap album ever made. That’s not opinion but empirical fact: Not only have Rolling Stone, NME, Vibe, and Q all said so, but it’s also the only hip-hop album that ranks in the first 100 on Rolling Stone‘s Greatest Albums list. By comparison, the record peaked at a relatively low #42 on the Billboard album chart when it first came out. Because of the media sensation he created, we tend to think of Chuck D as a cultural authority, but in most obvious ways It Takes a Nation—the “greatest” hip-hop has ever produced—doesn’t fulfill the conventional expectations of its genre, which may go a long way toward explaining its unique popularity with rock critics.

The Bomb Squad’s avant-garde production made music out of a wreck of sounds. It wasn’t just the samples, from sources as varied as Queen and Stevie Wonder, but how they were used. Everyday noises like turntable scratches bumped up against live recordings of political speeches, a saxophone in “Show Em Whatcha Got,” and the rock crunch of the Beastie Boys-inspired “Party for Your Right to Fight.” Nothing if not democratic, Chuck D also didn’t self-mythologize in the same way as Notorious B.I.G. or Jay-Z. The clattering nature of Public Enemy favored more voices, not less, in the end fulfilling the hinted promise of crossover rap during the late ‘80s: “Run DMC first said a deejay could be a band/Stand on its feet, get you out your seat,” Chuck D rhymes on “Bring the Noise.” He used the casual language of black culture, but he also took his own advice to “reach the bourgeois/Rock the boulevard.”

“I gotta speak the truth, man/Doing what we feel/For the music is the proof.” That’s a line from A Tribe Called Quest’s 1991 masterpiece The Low End Theory, but it might as well have been lifted from It Takes a Nation. Later groups like Quest and De La Soul, arguably responsible for the two other greatest rap albums ever made, introduced the world to jazzy, soulful hip-hop, but in their laughably titled collective Native Tongues Posse (they all came from the outskirts of Manhattan), they shared with Public Enemy a commitment to experimental sounds and authentic, outspoken visions of urban life—and from there it’s not too hard to trace the lineage of artists like M.I.A. and Common. Less positively, it’s hard to imagine a racist missive like Ice Cube’s “Black Korea”— which eerily foreshadowed the strife of the Rodney King riots—without It Takes a Nation, an album that, for better or worse, gave rap its social trenchancy. In hip-hop’s circle of life, it wasn’t so much what Public Enemy was spitting, but the boldness with which they put it out there—putting their voices on the airwaves and asking, “Can I get a witness?”

Label: Def Jam Release Date: April 1, 1988 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Yola’s Walk Through Fire Feels Like a Musical Time Capsule

The British soul singer’s debut seems to have emerged from a time capsule circa 1969.

3.5

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Walk Through Fire
Photo: Alysse Gafkjen/Nonesuch

Everything about Yola’s debut, Walk Through Fire, seems to have emerged from a time capsule circa 1969—from the album cover, with its muted color palette and chunky vintage fonts, to the musical arrangements, which mix baroque-pop signifiers like glockenspiel and pizzicato strings with more timeless organ and pedal steel. The album’s session musicians are of a similar vintage: Drummer Gene Chrisman and pianist Bobby Wood are both veterans of the house band from American Sound Studio in Memphis, ground zero for Elvis Presley’s “Suspicious Minds” and Dusty Springfield’s Dusty in Memphis.

It’s tempting to ascribe this studious retro sensibility to producer Dan Auerbach, whose 2017 solo album, Waiting on a Song, treaded similar territory with some of the same musicians. But Yola, whose colorful backstory includes a brief stint with trip-hoppers Massive Attack, has a voice that lends itself to the analogue treatment: rich and mellifluous, adept at both caressing the melodies of a lilting ballad like “Shady Grove” and blowing the roof off of a belter like “Lonely the Night.” The British singer simply sounds like the product of another era, closer in spirit to the likes of Mavis Staples than to 21st-century R&B stylists like SZA.

If Through the Fire sounds like it’s from 1969, that’s because the late ‘60s were the golden era of country-soul, when a small but significant group of artists, songwriters, and producers were blurring the boundaries between working-class black and white roots music. Yola, who’s cited Dolly Parton as a crucial influence, is right at home in this space, sounding as natural singing atop the fiddles and pedal steel of lead single “Ride Out in the Country” as she does over the organ and horn section of “Still Gone.” The ease with which Yola, Auerbach, and their collaborators blend these genres is a powerful reminder of their shared roots—particularly at a time when musical styles feel at once more amorphous and more rigidly segregated than ever.

While Through the Fire’s facsimile of ‘60s country-soul is uncanny, the sturdiness of its songcraft is even more impressive. Yola and Auerbach composed the majority of the album with seasoned songwriters—most notably Dan Penn, who as the co-writer of standards like “The Dark End of the Street” and “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” played no small role in the creation of country-soul as a genre. None of the songs on Through the Fire are of quite that caliber, and some feel like they’re trying too hard to be: The subject matter of “Ride Out in the Country” is a bit too bucolically on the nose, while a few stray lyrical references to “across the great divide” and “love [is] a losing game” come across as distracting tips of the hat to more canonical—and, frankly, better—songs. But on tracks like “Keep Me Here” and “It Ain’t Easier,” Yola seems capable of not only expertly mimicking the sounds of the past, but also creating something that will itself stand the test of time.

Label: Easy Eye Sound/Nonesuch Release Date: February 22, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Tedeschi Trucks Band’s Signs Points to Better Times Ahead

The band’s raw, crowd-pleasing blues-rock remains as rousing as ever on Signs.

3.5

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Signs
Photo: Shore Fire Media

Tedeschi Trucks Band’s raw brand of blues-rock is a thrilling resurrection of bygone genres endemic to the southeastern United States, and they play with the freewheeling improvisatory energy of hallowed country-rock bands like the Allman Brothers, Little Feat, and Black Oak Arkansas. The group’s sound hasn’t noticeably evolved since their 2011 debut, Revelator, but their craft—particularly the electrifying, full-throated howl of singer Susan Tedeschi—remains as rousing as ever on their fourth album, Signs.

Lead single “Hard Case” fuses Americana, Memphis soul, and New Orleans swamp funk to tell the story of lovers who can’t quit each other. Tedeschi’s wails seamlessly intertwine with Matt Mattison’s gruff warble. “You’re a hard case to refuse,” Tedeschi sings, her voice tinged with both overwhelming desire and a creeping sense of self-doubt. Like most Tedeschi Trucks songs, “Hard Case” attempts to capture the blistering kinetic energy of the band’s live performances, and it mostly succeeds: The drums pummel, the solos meander, and the guitars, expertly played by Tedeschi’s husband, Derek Trucks, unexpectedly leap forward.

“Hard Case” is the closest Signs comes to matching the unbridled dynamism of “Part of Me,” a soaring standout from 2013’s Made Up My Mind. Yet the album also contains a handful of irrepressible trad-rock jams that allow Tedeschi’s vocals to take center stage, as on the Motown-inspired “I’m Gonna Be There” and “They Don’t Shine.” On “Walk Through This Life,” her voice veers from exuberant and unrestrained to subtle and declarative, yet it never loses its luster, evoking, at turns, that of Bonnie Raitt, Stevie Nicks, and Gladys Knight.

Many Americana outfits have become sociopolitical observers in the Trump era, and Tedeschi Trucks Band is no different. “Signs, Hard Times” is a blue-eyed soul rave-up that calls on bystanders to get off the sidelines in a time when passivity amounts to complicity. “No more fooling around,” Tedeschi shouts, urging us to take action before it’s too late. Yet, at times, their activist message comes off as stilted. “Shame, there’s poison in the well/Shame, you know we can’t un-ring the bell,” Tedeschi proclaims on “Shame.” It’s a well-intentioned but ultimately shallow truism—a lyric that states the obvious without offering any solutions.

At their best, the songs on Signs bristle with a kind of wide-eyed optimism. On “Still Your Mind,” Tedeschi seems to sum up the album’s mission: “You’re not alone/So many people feel that low/But I’ll help you grow.” While not without its flaws, Signs heals in this way. It’s often so joyous and spirited that, for a moment, it’s easy to envision better times ahead.

Label: Fantasy Release Date: February 15, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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Review: Ariana Grande Embraces Her Flaws on Thank U, Next

The pop princess comes off as a decidedly unsympathetic character throughout her fifth album.

3.5

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Thank U, Next
Photo: Republic Records

Ariana Grande doesn’t care if you like her. The pop princess comes off as a decidedly unsympathetic character throughout her fifth album, Thank U, Next. She fantasizes about her ex while her lover sleeps beside her on “Ghostin,” she picks fights with him for the make-up sex on “Make Up,” and she glibly coaxes a guy into dumping his girlfriend just for kicks on the plainly titled “Break Up with Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored.”

As Grande recently proclaimed on Twitter, “Life is full trash,” and it’s this willingness to reveal herself warts and all that makes it easy to forgive her various indiscretions. She isn’t afraid to admit that she’s “Needy” and—on the very next track—that she simultaneously requires her personal space. “Been through some bad shit, I should be a sad bitch/Who woulda thought it’d turn me to a savage?” she declares on “7 Rings,” which finds the singer boasting of her financial prowess in the key of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “My Favorite Things.”

Today’s pop stars typically rely on rappers to deliver the kind of braggadocious verses that would otherwise dirty up their squeaky-clean personas, but Grande spits her own rhymes throughout Thank U, Next, and they’re so slick that Princess Nokia and Soulja Boy have both accused her of biting their flows. There are no guest rappers on this decidedly lean follow-up to last year’s Sweetener, and while one might expect it to be filled with at least a few stale leftovers from that album, the songs here rarely sound like sloppy seconds.

Thank U, Next is easily Grande’s most sonically consistent effort to date, even if that means some of the album’s sleek R&B tracks tend to blur together. Aside from a wealth of trap beats and finger snaps, the album’s most notable characteristic is the recurring use of orchestral flourishes. The opening track, “Imagine,” is a dreamy midtempo ballad, with Grande pining for an Instagram-perfect romance that comprises sharing sexy baths and pad thai. The song takes a sudden turn in its final third, as it builds to a hypnotic climax filled with cinematic swells and Grande’s euphoric, Minnie Ripperton-esque whistle notes.

That same tactic makes slightly less thematic sense on the reggae-inflected “Bad Idea,” on which Grande espouses the temporarily amnesiac virtues of casual sex. Elsewhere, the use of a sample by the late soul singer Wendy Rene on “Fake Smile” initially smacks of misappropriation, followed as it is by seemingly mindless lines like “Another night, another party, sayin’ hi to everybody.” But by the end, the song reveals itself to be a modern expression of the blues, about a young woman trying to navigate life in an era where privacy is virtually nonexistent. Grande ultimately earns the use of that sample, and it’s her refusal to fake a smile that proves to be what makes her so damn likeable.

Label: Republic Release Date: February 8, 2019 Buy: Amazon

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