Wednesday, January 9, 2008

One music review by Alison Ross

Collective Soullessness
by Alison Ross

One of my favorite albums of all times is Public Enemy's "Fear of a Black Planet." That 1989 landmark album bristles with feisty soul, aggressive grooves and flamboyant innovation - whimsical sound effects, song samples, talk show radio clips and humorous band banter. "Fear" may be anchored in fierce tribal beats and patent rap rhymes, but the songs cut across musical boundaries, and yet somehow manage to fluidly merge into a coheisve collection. And the lyrical message about black pride and social justice that rages throughout the songs takes the album to a literary level, rendering "Fear of a Black Planet" a perfect fusion of popular and high culture.

Public Enemy has since receded into semi-obscurity, owing to other (inferior but similar) rap acts eclipsing their moon. Ironically, PE inspired most of these acts, some of whom are gangsta-oriented and others of whom boast a hip-hop/R&B vibe. And to be fair, some of the acts, like Common, have taken PE's social conscience message to heart. But others, like 50 Cent, have taken the "street" elements of PE too literally and made themselves into pathetic parodies that teeter on blaxploitation caricatures.

For in the end, PE was never about promoting "gangsta." Instead, the band's aim was to force sociopolitical change that would help liberate blacks from languishing in the "drug and thug" lifestyle.

Granted, frontman Chuck D's mischievous sidekick, Flava Flav, hasn't exactly been a sparkling example for other black males to follow, and the band's lyrics have sometimes carelessly wandered into sexist territory. But PE's purpose was always pure even if the methods were sometimes misguided. Acts like 50 Cent, on the other hand, aim only to glorify unsavory aspects of gangsta culture without a care as to the consequences. There is no honorable sociopolitical subtext in unimaginative acts like 50 Cent, and yet the corporate crooks who peddle such poison to our youth are cackling all the way to the bank.

Thankfully, Public Enemy is back with a grand new album. Some would protest that PE never really went away, only blended a bit into the background. However, one thing is for certain: PE has not received this much popular and critical respect in years.

I'll be perfectly frank: I have not listened to many recent PE efforts. I will admit I have fallen prey to media hype that told me that current PE efforts were tepid at best. Perhaps I am doing PE and myself a disservice but not giving more recent releases like "New Whirl Odor" a chance.

But nevertheless, PE's new album, "How You Sell Soul to a Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul" (how's that for alliterative superfluity?), is a smashing return to form. It mines retro rap and rock styles, and tosses in some tantalizing soul, funk, and rhythym and blues. Lyrically it delves into the standard PE themes - race politics and social justice - and it even has flourishes of the patented self-aggrandizing. The lyrics also assail many current rappers for lacking creative depth and for perpetuating insidious stereotypes through their lyrics, sartorial styles, and on-stage posturing. The album title also seems to be reprimanding the black community as a whole for selling its integrity to such agents of pernicious superficiality.

There are a few missteps on "How You Sell Soul," such as an uninspiring several-song sequence of Flava Flav indulgences. Indeed, these songs in some ways embody exactly what Chuck D is attempting to condemn: creative soullessness.

But the album brims with gems nonetheless. Highlights include the AC/DC-inspired "Black is Back," the funk-infused "Harder Than You Think," the 'ghetto metal' "Frankenstarr," and the soul-spiced "See Something, Say Something." There is also a Beatles-esque number, "The Long and Whining Road," which catalogues PE's lengthy legacy.

Public Enemy is a volcanic force to be reckoned with. Through their audaciously inventive sounds and principled lyrical dispatches, they teach us that music and society should be artistically animated rather than sapped of soul.

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