Some rap records make you dance, and some make you think. But the best ones do both.
That point may seem almost too obvious to bother making, but it's an important consideration when reviewing an album like Public Enemy's new "Apocalypse 91: The Enemy Strikes Black" (Def Jam/Columbia 47374, arriving in record stores today). Because as tempting as it is to praise P.E. for its point of view, which this time focuses on everything from malt liquor sales to slavery, what the group has to say doesn't matter quite as much as how it sounds.
Don't take that as a dismissal. Even when Public Enemy ends up hedging its bets -- explaining, for instance, that its support of Louis Farrakhan has nothing to do with the Nation of Islam and everything to do with Farrakhan's image of strength -- the fact that its music sparks debate and urges its listeners to think is admirable in the extreme.
But let's face it -- that message wouldn't be half as impressive without Chuck D's booming delivery or the Bomb Squad's bone-crushing beats.
Just listen to the way "Rebirth," one of the songs on the new album, kicks home its message. With the bass throbbing like a headache, Chuck D raps about his role as P.E.'s self-proclaimed lyrical terrorist. "I don't claim to be a preacher," he says, adding that people pay attention when he addresses "what the hell is going on" because, he says, "You never know if you only trust the TV and the radio."
True enough. But the reason we believe Chuck D isn't simply that we know TV and radio often distort the news; it's because Chuck D speaks with the voice of authority.
It's a great gimmick, and could easily have turned Public Enemy into rap's leading demagogues. But unlike some pop stars (and most politicians), Chuck D seems more interested in having the answer than in having power; consequently, "Apocalypse 91" finds the group tackling tough issues and taking up unpopular views.
There's a fake KKK radio spot, for instance, in which Klansman Bernie Crosshouse (get it?) thanks the black community for furthering its own destruction through gangs and drug dealing. A pointed joke, right? But the group couldn't be more serious when it attacks malt liquor marketing in "One Million Bottlebags," a rap which wonders how many black-on-black killings result from having a gun in one hand, and a malt liquor bottle in the other.
Best of all is "Can't Truss It," which not only puts the heritage of slavery in stark perspective -- the Emancipation Proclamation didn't end slavery, says P.E., it just forced the slavers to change tactics -- but does so with a sound that can only be described as triumphant.
Public Enemy doesn't score on every point, of course. Although there's an awful lot of truth in "A Letter to the New York Post," the fact that the rap is based around an item the race-baiting newspaper ran on P.E.'s own Flavor Flav leaves some of the rhymes sounding like whining. And though Flav makes an excellent point about race and pride in "I Don't Wanna Be Called Yo Niga," the fact that this incredibly funky track concludes with a catchy chorus built around the n-word doesn't exactly help his argument.