The single and title track from the new Public Enemy record, Man Plans God Laughs. I am extremely glad that one of the greatest groups of all time is still putting out records that are fearless and relevant.
As I looked quickly at the headlines over at Rolling Stone today, I was shocked and extremely psyched to see that Public Enemy is releasing a new album…this week! The album is titled Man Plans, God Laughs. They are one of the greatest groups of all time in any genre, and if they weren’t so intensely political, I believe their profile would be even higher here in the states than it has been in recent years. Their last two albums, Most of My Heroes Still Don’t Appear On No Stamps and The Evil Empire of Everything, both released in 2012, were both jaw dropping and worth checking out if you have checked the group out in awhile. (I would definitely get both records as they both feature different sonic textures, yet compliment each other really well from a musical perspective. If you love the group or just love exciting and intense music, you can’t go wrong.) The above video is one of the official singles from Most of My Heroes Still Don’t Appear On No Stamps.
I have become transfixed with the music of Kanye West lately. Whatever you think of him, and like me you probably have an opinion of him even before you have heard a note of his music, he is definitely an artist. He allows all of the contradictions in his personality, both the good and bad, to come through in his music even when it makes him look less than flattering. More importantly he has become a first rate sonic architect. His latest album Yeezus, and my favorite, is batshit insane in the best way possible. I like his work from best to least in reverse order, though I will admit I am least familiar with his first two records. The stranger his music gets the better as far as I’m concerned.
His lyrics, while it would be wrong to say they are not intelligent, are not intellectual in a true sense. Although they have many moments of playfulness and bizarre humor, in some way they seem less constructed than delivered. It’s almost as if we have a ticker tape of the subconscious. This is both their strength and weakness. That’s why I believe his lyrics work the best when they are either a direct representation of how he feels, or are completely crazy on something like I Am a God. The very best are when you have a tough time telling the two apart. When he is singing something like I Am a God I believe he is just having fun, trying to be provocative. He has found a small bit of virgin territory, which is harder and harder to do these days, and is staking it out, probably laughing at all of the people that are going to freak out.
Other than being a huge Public Enemy fan I am not a big rap fan. I am trying to branch out and learn more as it is one of the areas where I feel my musical education is lacking. I’ve always felt that the singing voice is the quickest way to some kind of emotional truth in music. When someone sings it is almost a window into their soul. In rap that nonverbal emotional element is missing and the words really do matter. That’s not to say that a rappers delivery can’t communicate emotions, it is just not the same as singing though. Also, and this goes for any genre, one of my pet peeves lyrically is of the moment pop culture references. They seem to date something instantly. That’s not to say that you can’t reach some universal truth while doing so, but you have an uphill battle. Too often rap not only exists in the world of the ego, which rock n roll has been doing since it began, but in the world of the temporary. I feel like the best lyrics either make you think on some deeper level, or stay out of the way of the melody completely and let the emotional quality of a piece of music do the talking. If you are thinking, but at a very rudimentary level, you are being taken out of the emotion of the piece as far as I’m concerned. No one would say that Bernard Sumner was a great poet, but his lyrics have an almost blank slate quality that allows you to project your own imagination into the song. They don’t get in the way of enjoying his effervescent melodies. I’m trying to rethink my personal prejudices when it comes to lyrics, at least when I listen to rap, as I realize it is a different form with different rules.
I became interested in Kanye when both Lou Reed and David Lynch talked about their love of his new album. They are two artists that I respect greatly and I had to see what they were going on about. I was instantly impressed with Yeezus and wanted to learn more.
I see the lyrics on Yeezus as both a mixture of raw pain and again as someone just trying to have fun. It’s a strange blend, but compelling because of it. Part of the detective work of the listener is trying to determine where he is being serious and where he is not. Sometimes he is playing with his media perception and other times he is letting those inner thoughts, the ones that most of us keep secret, come to the forefront.
Sonically the juxtaposition of opposing ideas again makes this album incredibly captivating. Primal drums, screeching synths, and screams will suddenly give way to beautiful moments of soul singing. Often you’ll get one or the other on a record, but rarely both. He is playing with both melody and noise often in the same song. This record is one of the few times when I have heard something and I feel like something is being done new sonically. Sure, everything has been done in some ways, but he is painting new colors in the margins. He is combining things in a way that they have never quite been combined before. It’s exciting.
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.
I am on the road today, so I thought I would post this interesting interview with Public Enemy’s Chuck D. Worth reading for his ideas on music, culture, and politics. Right now I am obsessed with their absolutely amazing album The Evil Empire of Everything.
I’ve been listening to a lot of Public Enemy recently. I don’t really listen to rap that often, but when I do it is almost exclusively Public Enemy. I remember when Public Enemy were in their heyday, and they are still putting out good records now even if they sell less, they had a large crossover white audience despite often singing about black concerns. Many people wondered why, and I think if I remember the band itself was even a bit confounded by why there were so many white people at many of their shows. I think the reason that is, is that what they do is just so undeniably great. When I listen to their records I realize that I am listening to a completely unique artistic statement. They drew upon black soul, early hip hop, and rock n roll in their music, but the way they put everything together defies categorization.
I am most familiar with their classic run of albums It’s Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Fear of a Black Planet, and Apocalypse 91…The Enemy Strikes Back. The sound of these records is as dense as Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound. However, while Spector’s Wall of Sound was “a teenage symphony to God”, Public Enemy’s sound is at the opposite end of the spectrum. Their music is infused with dread and revolution. It is music that is meant to provoke. However, as a musician, I listen to these records and am in awe of the arrangements. There are so many different levels of sound going on, that shouldn’t work, and yet somehow do. There are air raid sirens stacked on top of electric guitars, stacked on top of all kinds of drum loops and percussion, stacked upon strange vocal samples. And that description doesn’t even touch what is going on half the time! This is really musical stuff that reaches the level of genius.
The lyrics are also extremely political. This was at a time when mainstream rock n roll had ceased to be a force for social change. Public Enemy picked up the baton and ran with it. Although Public Enemy were often rapping about black concerns, it is not hard to identify with the outsider or underdog. Plus their lyrics were often batshit crazy in a way that is completely fun if you have a certain sensibility. I love the term “intellectual Vietnam!” As Dylan said about Ice-T, who also put out some great stuff, theses guys were, “throwing horses over cliffs.” They weren’t messing about!
In Chuck D they not only had a great lyricist, but a great voice. His baritone is like a cannon going off. He is a captivating street preacher that demands your attention. There aren’t that many voices that charismatic in music, let alone in rap. Also like so much rap out there, and so much country music, and so much mainstream music in general these days, he isn’t selling fake rebellion forged with consumerist ideas. From the lyrics to Say It Like It Really Is, one of their more recent singles:
I don’t give a damn about poppin Champaign
Say what y’all wanna say about
Revolution I’m a say what I’m saying
Rather be stuck up than stuck down
Here’s the difference
I picks up the black and brown
Against Mr. Man informants and government
While real people starve and cant pay their rent
They you seriously don’t mean what you meant
I ain’t tricked deceived paid off inagreement
Somebody planned it
Glad y’all understand it
Those that don’t
Headharded like granite
We look out for them too
And don’t take em for granted
I have a very unscientific theory that I would like to throw at you. Why in the last few decades has there been such a rise in the popularity of rap and Nashville country? I say that these are two forms of music that are unafraid of the product placement. Rock N Roll should be in some part about rebellion against the status quo. In the 60’s it was part of the counter culture. I would bet as companies learned more and more how to market music and how to control it they didn’t want too many people queering their hustle.
Now I am being lazy and lumping in all rap and modern country together. There are always exceptions to the rules. I am talking about the kind that gets played on the radio all of the time. Nor is this to say that if this music helps you get through a day of daily drudgery there is anything wrong with it. If it floats your boat have at it. Just realize what you are being sold.
These two forms sell what I call fake rebellion. There may be songs that involve shooting guns, objectifying women, being outlaws, etc. However, neither of these forms challenges the dominant power structures in our society. Those would be consumerism and religion. You can take your drugs, drink your beer, and get laid, but just keep shopping and don’t think too hard about what’s keeping you at your current class status.
In rap it’s pretty obvious. No other form of music has so glorified getting rich and owning things. There are obvious examples of this not being the case. From back in my day you had Public Enemy, whose records still ring with righteous anger. But a lot of this music is egocentric music that while on the surface appears to be dangerous, really just reinforces the current economic model.
Nashville country, on the other hand is not far behind in songs featuring product placement. I bet I could flip on a mainstream country station right now and within the hour hear a song that not only mentions a truck, but what brand. Country music also often plays upon tribal affiliations. It might make you feel like a rebel and an outlaw, but you are a certain kind of rebel and outlaw that is exactly like millions of other rebels and outlaws. So in reality, you are not that much of a rebel or an outlaw. You are just wearing a costume that helps you belong to a group that you feel comfortable in.
I also like to say that Karl Marx, not to be confused with Richard Marx, got it wrong. Nashville country music is the opiate of the masses. It let’s people feel a sense of identity and belonging even if they don’t’ have a pot to piss in. It never questions who is fucking them in the ass.
Music doesn’t have to make you think. But it should at least make you feel something strongly. Emotions are raw and abstract and powerful things. But I question the value of anything that makes you feel like a rebel for a night, and a fool for a lifetime.