The newest Public Enemy album, The Evil Empire of Everything, is simply one of the best, most powerful albums I have heard in a long time. It is also the most powerful political statement put on record since Neil Young’s Living with War. I am a little late to the party. I say the newest album because this record came out in 2012. But better late than never, because this record is absolutely essential.
In the late 80’s Public Enemy put our a trilogy of ground breaking albums. From It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back to Apocalypse 91…The Enemy Strikes Back they were pretty much perfect. I kinda lost the thread after that, as some label problems took them out of the public eye, and quite frankly my tastes changed. Recently, looking for music of substance, I have decided to revisit those albums, and eventually decided I wanted to hear something I hadn’t heard before. Knowing that I was going on the road this weekend, and that I would have 20 plus hours in the van over four days, I decided to give their newest album a shot. I am glad I did because this album simply blows my mind. It is fearless politically and top notch musically.
The sound of Public Enemy is every bit as important as the lyrics. Even when Chuck D isn’t saying something explicitly politically, the sound of the band conveys revolution. On their classic run of albums Public Enemy created a dense chaotic wall of sound. They did this by combining an untold number of samples into something truly original. Both the sound of the band and the structure of their records was like a collage. They took little pieces of different music, sound effects, and dialouge, and spliced them together until these different sounds became something greater than the some of their parts. Because of changes in copy right laws, this approach is really no longer possible. I have no way of knowing if this is true, but I read that their album Fear of a Black Planet has so many samples on it that each copy sold would have resulted in five dollars they would have had to pay out under existing copyright laws.
Surprisingly, although being slightly less dense, they have been able to replicate the sonic chaos of their early albums. There are still drum loops that sound like they came off old funk records, electric guitars, interesting sonic treatments, and thought provoking dialouge.
The album begins, after a brief bit of treated soul music, with George Zimmerman’s 911 phone call on the night Trayvon Martin was killed. There is an another song called Beyond Trayvon where members of Public Enemy trade verses with their sons to talk about the fact that it is still dangerous to be black in America, even after electing a black president. Although this could seem, upon first inspection, as something that will date quickly, this incident is used as a jumping off point to talk about larger questions of race that will unfortunately be relevant for a long time to come.
One of the things that is so great about the lyrics on this album is that Chuck D and the other MC’s seemed to have widened their nets. Although the lyrics on this record definitely come from a black perspective, they also spend plenty of time going outside their tribe talking about much larger issues of social and economic justice. One of the most important things in life is learning empathy for people outside of your tribe. If this perspective cannot be reached there is no chance for unity and therefor building the coalitions that must be made to tackle the serious problems facing the world. Chuck D and the rest of Public Enemy find commen cause with illegal immigrants and other members of the economically downtrodden. This gives their album a much more universal appeal.
What are other topics talked about on this record? They touch upon the horrible state of the media as they have done before on Don’t Believe the Hype. They also talk about war, the way the United States is percieved throughout the world, the housing crisis, problems with fame and materialism in the culture, the war on terror, the decline of meaning in the music business, and the environment among other issues. Only Flavor Flav’s 31 Flavors provides some comic relief in the storm. This also unfortunately makes it the one track, however enjoyable it is in and of itself, that doesn’t fit the themes of the record.
Although their songs take strange detours like their classic run of albums, where songs were often spliced with spoken word or insturmental parts that do not resemble the main tracks, this happens less often. However this provides the album with a stronger song oriented approach than in the past. In some ways this actually makes the album more enjoyable on repeated listens. Although the album lacks some of the mad genius of something like Fear of a Black Planet, in some way this album is actually more listenable because of it. Many more of these songs have a single quality to them. There is still enough of mini pieces to give the album a unified feel.
Another thing that I like about the album from a lyrical perspective is that, although again they touch upon many stories ripped from the headlines, they use these stories to jump off into wider criticisms of modern America. This album will again, unfortunately, be relevant for years to come.
Although PE addresses many problems in our country the music still has a take no prisoners approach that is inpiring. Thematically the record is dark, but the album has a bravado that makes you feel as if there is still hope to change things before it is too late. It is a magic trick because except for one song this music does not feature uplifting major key melodies. It is musically a tough record, like most of their work, that gets one ready for battle. While it does acknowledge the problems of the world head on, it will not be defeated by them.
If you are looking for music of substance that is gauranteed to be thought provoking, look no further. This is powerfully passionate stuff. PE have added another classic album to their cannon. I can’t reccomend this album highly enough. It features the trifecta of interesting music and arrangments, thought provoking lyrics, and especially in Chuck D, a voice for the ages. Although his voice is more ragged than in the past, it still sounds like he is casting thunder from the mountaintop. Get this album, and get ready for the struggle.