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25 years is a long journey in any artist's career, especially a recording group and even more incredibly in the genre of RAP music and HipHop. Public Enemy therefore planned to mark 2012 as being a unique recording output of sight and sound, with the release of two highly anticipated albums: Most Of My Heroes STILL Don't Appear On NO Stamp and The Evil Empire of Everything. The rap group have of course recently been in the limelight due to their UK Indie chart-topping single Harder Than You Think, (#4 on the main UK singles charts) which was featured in an advert as part of Channel 4's Meet The Superhumans campaign for the 2012 Paralympics. The first new studio album since 2007 and their 13th to date, Most Of My Heroes is an explosive musical lyrical statement to the Planet Earth. 11 tracks laden with the sonic and word fury this group has been known for. Complete with interludes saluting the rebels of freedom, directly spoken over beats to tie it all together. Chuck D, Flavor Flav, DJ Lord, Professor Griff, the baNNed and S1WS all contribute in a big necessary way. Run Till Its Dark, Get Up Stand Up, Catch The Thrown and the single and video I Shall Not Be Moved speak volumes by their titles alone. It's a new sound with contributors like ZTRIP, Large Professor, Bumpy Knuckles, Brother Ali, Cormega and Hall Of Famer DMC and others. A must have millennium anthem for the music masses galore.
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Let's get it out of the way: Public Enemy are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for a good reason. 25 years, platinum and gold records, and no signs of slowing down. If you want to judge an album based on the group, you can stop reading right there: Public Enemy is worth buying, period. And if you're a hard-core fan from way back, you don't need me to say anything to you; you've got a better-informed opinion that I have. But if you're like me and you're getting to know PE, I'll break it down.
This is not a reunion tour or a bit of nostalgia by a group only sticking around because they have no other way to live. This isn't a best-of collection. This is the eleventh studio album by a group still innovating and yet staying true to their roots. It's just as charged as earlier works. Age has brought wisdom, but not a softening of the anger against oppression and injustice. While much of the album (as with all Public Enemy works) deals with the problems of race, class, gender, sexuality, and money are addressed as well. Some people have criticized the lyrics as being played out; I couldn't disagree more. Expressing a consistent theme is not the same as having nothing original to say.
Overall, the album sounds great, to my untrained ears; it may be that it's a victim of the scourge of compression that audiophiles have been decrying for the past decade as producers squash dynamic ranges and tailor sound to digital distribution. I can't speak to that because I rarely hear that sort of thing and I think I may actually prefer a more compressed sound. But the production is strong, no technical issues or places where the sound became muddy or unclear.
Lyrically, as I said, Chuck is still on top of his game. Vocally, he hasn't slowed down or softened up, though he has a bassy growl that he didn't in early albums which is used to great effect in Get Up Stand Up among others. Flav's vocals are a standout here as well; he has tempered some of the elements of his performance that occasionally grate on me, and while I like that, fans of his more off-the-wall performances may find this album lacking there. When the two are put together, as in Catch the Thrown, it's classic PE. The beats are prime DJ Lord, and while I miss some of the raw energy of Terminator X and the early stuff, that's not to say that this is worse. There is a depth of sound throughout; some songs are quite sparse, while some beats are layered masterpieces. And of particular note to me: this album is truly an album, with a flow from track to track, beginning to end, that reminds me of the heyday of the album, before mp3 players made every song a single. Lord's beats tie everything together along with repeated lyrical themes.
Track by track (according to Amazon's listing and skipping the interstitials):
#1 - Run Till It's Dark - If you've heard a few other PE albums you might be expecting this to be one of their entirely DJ openers, or at least Chuck talking rather than rapping, but Run Till It's Dark sets the tone; I dare you not to feel the impulse when Chuck growls, "Run till it's dark!" Backed up by a beat which makes you want to run, the lyrics almost set up a chant, with a repetition of "Survey says:" and "Run till it's dark." This track isn't likely to be anyone's number 1 pick, but I think that's a shame; it's a great opener, which should come as no surprise from PE.
#2 - Get Up Stand Up - If you haven't already heard this song, both Chuck and Brother Ali are incredible. The syncopation is really on display; none of that "moon/june" crap idiots think all rap is. And it's a call to action; you want to stand up. I'm assuming (without basis) that the title is in reference to Bob Marley; if so, it's a fitting update. The beat is sharp, clashing and agressive, fitting the tone. There's a reason this track gets attention.
#3 - Most of My Heroes Still Don't Appear On No Stamp - I swear, I'm not just saying that every track is amazing because I give out praise lightly. The title track, with Chuck backed by the sounds of brass fanfare, tells you exactly why Public Enemy is a giant. If there's any track on this album which is nostalgic, it might be this one, but it's impossible to fault a track that's this foot-stomping (I don't tap toes). Public Enemy announces itself, and it's here to kick ass and take names. They didn't do this one at the Hall of Fame induction, but it's that kind of song.
#4 - I Shall Not Be Moved - You haven't seen the video? Go watch the video. Tell me you don't want to own this album for just that track. That it takes its name from one of my favorite protest songs of all time doesn't hurt. But listen to that beat. DJ Lord keeps them on the track with a beat that's almost another MC. It's no coincidence that G-Wiz produced both this and Get Up Stand Up; they both bark for attention and pull you along. Did you see the dancer in the video? When I hear this track, I know I wish I could move like that; it seems like the only suitable response.
There is one nitpicky thing I could say here: this track has been edited for broadcast (it's not particularly swear-heavy, but there are a few) as have a few other tracks, but other tracks have not, and there's no Explicit version of the album out there to the best of my knowledge. It's just a little jarring; I know what the words are and I don't really care, but it does catch the ear. But this isn't the first PE album where that was the case; on the explicit versions of several of their previous albums there are songs which are censored with no rhyme or reason.
#5 - Get It In - Chuck and Bumpy Knuckles start strong, but the lyrical meat isn't there in Flav's ending. Still, saying this track isn't quite as good as some others is like saying that this bar of gold is slightly less shiny than others. The DJ work is excellent here, with some very nice scratches. Actually, that's worthy of comment on the whole: the hip-hop scene seems to have moved away from scratching to more produced loops, and while there is some excellent work being done with them, I do miss the old school turntable DJ. The scratching on this album isn't just scratch as percussion; there is plenty of more complex stuff being done by Lord, and while I'm not an expert, it really stands out when compared to other DJs.
#6 - Hoover Music - I could discuss the corporate nature of music and how it's stifling real art, but while that's the subject of this track and the lyrics are insightful as always, it's not a good way to review a song. Here's another track where Chuck and Flav are playing off each other like they've been doing this all their lives... which they have, so I guess it's not surprising. Those unfamiliar with hip-hop might wonder why there are always 17 guys on stage with microphones, occasionally repeating the lead MC or adding in "Yeah." Chuck D and Flavor Flav are a major factor there; Flav is one of the all-time great hype men, and when they get a groove going, it gets going. When they both rap at the same time, it adds emphasis, punch, and offers a counterpoint to the solo MC work. That Chuck is bass and Flav is tenor doesn't hurt either. They can syncopate or harmonize without melody. Take the time to really listen when they get going.
This actually isn't one of my favorite tracks on the album, and yet I'm talking about it more than songs I like more. It's just a great example of the rough-edged sound that PE brings, but listen to the beat and you can still hear all the parts. It's fuzzy but not muddy. And the rapping is percussive too. You can't separate out any one element; it's all PE.
#7 - Catch the Thrown - Again, I could talk at length about the damage professional sports have done to culture (I'm not against them per se, but as the only means of success for many young men, it's a manufacturer of misery for many) but that's not why we're here; get the message from the music any way you want. This track is another example of the amazing dynamic between Chuck and Flav. Lyrically it relies on end-of-line rhymes that are more like old-school hip-hop than the more modern break-beat rap, so in a certain way it's a traditional song. It's also slower (not dirgelike, but slower), which echoes early PE. It has a certain chant-like quality, with recurring motifs "What you... is what you..."
#8 - RLTK - Another slower number, socially conscious, which again is more old-school, befitting its guest, DMC. It's interesting that while the sound looks back to their roots, Chuck and DMC take it and use it to speak to the future. I praise the message, and it's nice to get a little old school, but it's also not one of my favorite tracks. That's a matter of taste, on RLTK YMMV.
#9 - Truth Decay - And this track is why PE is still here and other acts aren't. It's a synthesis of the previous two tracks, darker, slightly faster, with some of the same rhyme patterns and callbacks to the previous lyrics, but with a twist the shows just how much PE still has to give. The rapping is clever without being technical; it has a natural flow and internal rhymes which syncopate and reinvent the form of the previous two more traditional tracks. DJ Lord is excellent here as well, layering beats and tracks in a way which echoes classic tracks like Welcome to the Terrordome. Short and sweet.
#10 - Fass Food - This is the most uneven song on the album, the one which feels like it least belongs, and while it's not solely because of, it is in part due to Flavor Flav. I'm confused; is this song railing against what our culture of consumption is doing to us, both in a literal and more figurative sense, or is it an opportunity for Flav to plug his restaurants? It may take a few more listens before I can reconcile that question. I'm willing to give the track the benefit of the doubt; I may not be hearing it right. But it's my least favorite track.
#11 - WTF - At first, you might be tempted to dismiss this as gimmicky. Lord may have had a hand in the music, but it sounds like they're being backed by live instruments rather than a beat track. It's slower, the rhymes can at times be more than a little forced and are end-of-line. No syncopation here. The music is repetitive. And for crying out loud, calling a song WTF? Saying, "What the f..." like you're scared to say a bad word? This has to be the worst song on the album, right?
Wrong. I'm asking you to listen to all of it. If there's one thing you have to remember about Public Enemy, it's that unlike a lot of newer rap phenoms, the parts aren't interchangeable. Let all the parts play together. Listen to the track again. Are you starting to feel it?
The track is an amazing last number because it brings together all the threads and flow of the album and then punches you in the gut with them until you cry. Listen to it. That hiss as Chuck stifles the word, not because he's scared to say a bad word, but because he has to hold it in and he can't. Remember that WTF used to stand for something other than mild incredulity. When people said those words, it used to be a big deal. And it still can be. This song is the cry of the oppressed, and it's not about race, it's about justice. It invites us all to feel that deep-seated inability to understand how, in a world so beautiful, things can be so terrible. And we stifle it because we have to do so. We can't say that last word not because it's titillatingly naughty, but because we can't finish the thought. We're caught in the middle. And every time, "What the f...." is slammed into you, you can feel something that maybe you've never felt before, or maybe you never understood that other people might feel.
And then it's too much and the word is said and we're living in a world where Trayvon Martin can be murdered without justice being served and where people starve while corporate fat-cats spend millions on food they don't eat and where the vast majority of people are poor, poorer than anyone should be in this day and age of plenty, and where governments ignore the people and the earth is slowly dying and the whole thing just stinks, reeks of unfairness. And we scream "What the f*** [I'll censor myself because Amazon might not look kindly on my use of the word]" in unison. We stand up and ask what's going on like Marvin Gaye.
But the thing is, there's no resolution. Asking, "What the f***?!" is not a solution. And Public Enemy leave us hanging there, standing, angry, hurt, disillusioned, mad as hell and unable to take it any more.
Now go listen to The Evil Empire of Everything. It's not a sequel by any stretch, but it certainly echos the state in which we're left at the end of Most of My Heroes...
That's powerful stuff. At least, I think so. It's a hard song to listen to, and it gets harder every time I listen. But it's like taking a purgative if you swallow poison. It's hard, but you have to take your medicine. Maybe some of you are truly the oppressed. But I'd wager that most people reading this have done their fair share of oppressing. Well, you know how you feel now? That's how you're making people feel when you oppress them, treat them unfairly, cut them off.
That's all I have to say about WTF. I realize that I talked a lot about the message without telling you how it sounds, but you can listen to it all sorts of places. You should buy this album because it starts and ends with a series of punches; Run Till It's Dark is lightning jabs, precise and devastating, while WTF is a series of hard, brutal slugs in your vulnerable spots. Why is that a good thing? How many albums have you bought recently where you could honestly say they affected you other than maybe tapping your toes a little, or singing along? If you like PE, this album is destined to blow all those other albums away.
Buy it. There's no need to be scared. This is good music; it can take a bit of getting used to if you've been listening to corporate crap.
If you've ever heard a PE album then you know what to expect here. From the start of the album you're blessed with a sound that we've all grown to know and love. With that said, it still sounds fresh. It doesn't sound recycled or outdated, it sounds like a modern day Public Enemy.
This eleven song album runs at around around 48 minutes and you have Chuck D talking about the usual; politics, race, and music. Overall it's just really refreshing to hear an album like this. The production is excellent and honestly it's what had me coming back for more. That's not to take away from Chuck D's lyrics, but they aren't the strongest we've heard from him.
There's also a couple of guest appearances on here. You've got Brother Ali, Z-Trip, Bumpy Knuckles, Large Professor, Cormega, and DMC. Each one bringing a verse worthy of being on a PE record.
Standout Songs: "Get Up Stand Up (Feat. Brother Ali)" & "Catch The Thrown (Feat. Large Professor & Cormega)"
Overall Score: 8.5/10 - As I said before it's just really refreshing to hear an album like this. Especially in a time where a lot of the OG's are trying so hard to fit in with what's popular right now. I can't wait to see what they bring on the other new album coming out later this year.
Looping throughout this album are conversations illustrating the albums theme,extending on Chuck's famous line from the PE classic "Fight The Power",for which this album received it's title. Naming such figures as Rose Parks,Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz the album extends from there onto a potent,live and fully funk infused musical setting across "Get Up Stand Up" recorded with Brother Ali,"I Shall Not Be Moved","Get It In" and especially on the captivating "Catch The Thrown" and "Truth Decay",my personal favorites here. On these numbers Chuck D makes it clear for anyone not in the know how ethnic,sexual and economic prejudice are still intertwined into American society as much as they were when PE made their first album. Only the lives of Americans tends to be too fast to notice. This is reflect in "Fassfood" and the epic closer "WTF?",as Chuck scratches his head basically at the state of affairs still too present around him.
Two other telling numbers are "Hoovermusic",equating how a great depression exists in America as it did in the 1930's,only this time focused more on specific groups of people rather than a class of them. "RLTK" is a collaboration with DMC,putting two hip-hop titans from different halves of the 80's together and showing they are on the same page thematically. The more I hear from him,the more I realize how much of a clue Chuck D has as a very thoughtful and studied poet not just on the American social climate he creates in,but the music that inspires him to create in the first place. Employing The Banned-consisting of Khari Wynn on guitar,Davy DMX on bass and drummer T-Bone Motta he relies very much on this live funk element,present in PE's music from the very beginning,to make his point along with the DJ spinning the turntable. I see this as representing PE's allegiance to hip-hop's strong connection with funk. That goes for the subject matter every bit as much as the music as well. And both of those things I should not are completely complimentary in this case.