Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Public Enemy [extended]

  • Yo! Bum Rush the Show [Def Jam, 1987] B+
  • It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back [Def Jam, 1988] A+
  • Fear of a Black Planet [Def Jam, 1990] A
  • Apocalypse 91 . . . The Enemy Strikes Black [Def Jam/Columbia, 1991] A
  • Greatest Misses [Def Jam, 1992] ***
  • Muse Sick-N-Hour Mess Age [Def Jam, 1994] A-
  • Autobiography of Mistachuck [Mercury, 1996] A-
  • He Got Game [Def Jam, 1998] A
  • There's a Poison Goin' On . . . [Atomic Pop, 1999] *
  • Revolverlution [Koch, 2002] A-
  • New Whirl Odor [Guerrilla Funk, 2005] **
  • Rebirth of a Nation [Guerrilla Funk, 2006] A-
  • How You Sell Soul to a Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul??? [Slamjamz, 2007] A-
  • Tribb to JB [Slamjamz, 2007] B+
  • Most of My Heroes Still Don't Appear on No Stamp [Enemy, 2012] A-
  • The Evil Empire of Everything [Enemy, 2012] B+
  • Man Plans God Laughs [Spitdigital, 2015] *
  • Nothing Is Quick in the Desert [self-released, 2017] **
  • What You Gonna Do When the Grid Goes Down? [Def Jam, 2020] A-

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

Yo! Bum Rush the Show [Def Jam, 1987]
It may seem redundant to accuse a rapper of arrogance, like accusing a politician of seeking power, but Chuck D takes the bully-boy orotundity of his school of rap elocution into a realm of vocal self-involvement worthy of Pavarotti, Steve Perry, or the preacher at a Richard Pryor funeral. And while I know the idea is to play him off the wheedling motor-mouth of his boy Flavor-Flav, why should I like the great man's fan any more than I like the great man? They've got literary chops--amid puns more Elvis Costello than Peter Tosh, their "Megablast" is cutting anticrack narrative-propaganda--and they make something personal of rap's ranking minimalist groove. But there's no fun in these guys, which given the intrinsic austerity of the groove means not much generosity either. B+

It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back [Def Jam, 1988]
Chuck D is so full of shit Chuck E can dis him: "You know Public Enemy are punk rockers, 'cause they bitch about rock crits and airwaves so much." To which I'll add: "And make art about conflicts with the law that as a scion of the middle class (albeit an Afro-American and a second-generation leftist) D's avoided in real life." That said, the leader gets points for oratory, political chutzpah, and concealing his own asininity. If I'd never encountered him and Professor Griff in the public prints, I'd still figure them for reverse racists--last cut boasts that "Black-Asiatic man" got here first as if he should therefore inherit the earth. But their "freedom is a road seldom traveled by the multitude" wouldn't in itself have clued me to their contempt for the black audience, because these dense, hard grooves are powered by respect: musically, no pop in years has reached so far while compromising so little. Bill Stephney, Hank Shocklee, and Terminator X juice post-Coleman/Coltrane ear-wrench with the kind of furious momentum harmolodic funk has never dared: the shit never stops abrading and exploding. Yet it holds fast, a revolutionary message D's raps have yet to live up to--which isn't to say that isn't a lot to ask or that they don't sometimes come close. I mean, me and Chuck E like punks--D's not the first talented asshole to front a great band. In fact, he's in a grand rock and roll tradition. A+

Fear of a Black Planet [Def Jam, 1990]
All preemptive strikes to the contrary, this is a much better record than there was any reason to expect under the circumstances. It's not unusually inflated or self-involved, though its brutal pace does wear down eventually, it's got a sense of humor, not just from a Flav who keeps figuring stuff out, but from Chuck, whose "Pollywanacraka" message and voice--people keep bringing in Barry White or Isaac Hayes, but he's playing the pedagogue, not the love man, maybe some Reverend Ike figure--is the album's most surprising moment. And it's no more suspect ideologically than they've ever been, with the anti-Semitic provocation of "Terrordome" and the homophobic etiology of "Meet the G That Killed Me," both objectionable and neither one as heinous or as explicit as it's made out to be, countered somewhat by a clumsy attempt at a pro-woman slant and the spectacularly sure-footed rush of "Terrordome" itself. Shtick their rebel music may be, but this is show business, and they still think harder than anybody else working their beat. A

Apocalypse 91 . . . The Enemy Strikes Black [Def Jam/Columbia, 1991]
Hard, hard, hard--hard beats hard news, hard 'tude. Hard on the brother man (African slave traders, black rookies, dead gangstas, malt liquor addicts, Quiet Storm, Jet, and anybody who calls Flav "nigga"). Trademark dissonances and quick-witted interactions are sui generis, yet it's so in-your-face spare and sneaky deliberate that it's further from Fear of a Black Planet than Black Planet was from Nation of Millions, which was a lot further than a nation of others noticed. Strong top to bottom, it could peak higher: the closest thing to a "Bring the Noise" or "Terrordome" or even "911" is that nigga song. Motto: "Justice evolves only after injustice is defeated." A

Greatest Misses [Def Jam, 1992]
seven worthy remixes, two cultural criticisms, four us-against-thems cum me-against-thems ("Air Hoodlum," "Gett Off My Back") ***

Muse Sick-N-Hour Mess Age [Def Jam, 1994]
For a time PE's confrontational music/ideology compelled young blacks to hope that consciousness would get them somewhere, and don't think it was the limitations of Chuck's worldview that left them hanging. He never said it would be as easy as pop fans always expect, but he must have figured racism was a little more tractable than this. And when it wasn't, well, here came da gangstas--copping instant gratification for the padded jeepbeats they dealt, they talked tough and stayed out of the man's way. Taken for granted as an elder statesman by the young turks who are always coming up, resented for leading on middle-class followers who've since discovered War and Rose Royce, what can poor Chuck D. do 'cept rap in a rock and roll band? So he harangues and excoriates same as always, his dense rhetoric deep with puns, his hard beats charging you up just when you think the enamel on your bicuspids will never be the same. Over and above the gangsta-dissing "So Whatcha Gone Do Now?" and the ecology-dropping "Bedlam 13:13," half these tracks dynamite the harshly layered formula one way or another and the other half reprise a great sound. Some kind of funk, I swear, and if I understand the complaints that they sound like a damn alternative rock group, well, I always did--that's one reason I love them. A-

Chuck D: Autobiography of Mistachuck [Mercury, 1996]
If rap, now hip hop, is the black CNN, the coiner of that historic phrase has gone public access--his disappearing solo debut topped out at 190 pop and broke "r&b" well south of House of Pain. So his claim to righteousness has to stand as music, or if he's lucky the kind of rumor that kept Amerindie going--like Spearhead and Gil Scott-Heron, not Wu-Tang or Buju Banton. And until he gets winded half an hour in, he slam-dunks. Over a muscular bottom of unsampled funk--"NO contracts NO tracks with NO mechanicals"--the proud Chevy owner pounds home the plain, intricately rhymed truth about black folks dreaming of Jenny Jones, about hip hop going to hell in an armored limo. Sure helped me get straight after I spent an hour with the law one afternoon. I can only hope it'll do the same for people who really need it. A-

He Got Game [Def Jam, 1998]
Who better than the sports addict who wrote "Air Hoodlum" with no prompting from Spike Lee to comprehend and then control the soundtrack concept? Note, however, that for all the we're-back bluster and covertly sexist anti-r&b rhetoric, the closest it gets to the stressful speed of classic PE is on one of the seven (of 12) songs Shocklee-Shocklee-Sadler didn't produce, the Danny Saber-Jack Dangers closer "Go Cat Go." Instead you'll hear backup femmes, churchy chorales, skeleton beats, Wu strings, more guest rappers than advertised, and funk samples, although these are outnumbered by hooks appropriated subtly (in fact, brilliantly) from "James Bond Theme" and the Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again" and blatantly (also brilliantly) from Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth." On the latter, Steve Stills himself blubbers a climactic coda. Over-the-hill blowhards gotta stick together. A

There's a Poison Goin' On . . . [Atomic Pop, 1999]
Hating playas is fine, hating play amn't ("41:19," "What What"). *

Revolverlution [Koch, 2002]
Chuck D has always thought fresh beats were for pussies--keeping up with the times is a job for communications technology. So the four remixes were organized over the Internet by hardcore PE fans, who like semipop audiences everywhere accentuate what's most extreme and inaccessible about their faves, and never mind the Bomb Squad's r&b shake-and-bake on He Got Game. Fortunately, the old sound is hard in new ways, from the slow-and-snaky synth DJ Functionalist lays below "Shut Em Down" to "What Good Is a Bomb" raging against the machine. With the preacherly rotundity aged out of Chuck D's larynx and live drums just making "Put It Up" leaner, PE's music has never been so unforgiving. With a son-of-a-Bush leading us to perdition, what's to forgive? You know times are desperate when Griff starts making sense. A-

New Whirl Odor [Guerrilla Funk, 2005]
"Preachin' to the Quiet," as in, "How you gonna say no to drugs if you don't say no to thugs?" ("MKLVFKWR," "New Whirl Odor"). **

Rebirth of a Nation [Guerrilla Funk, 2006]
PE's best album in nearly a decade was overseen by Oakland Muslim-stockbroker-revolutionary Paris, who puts his stamp on its functional funk and unyielding class consciousness. In fact, with its international perspective and bitter "People on the bottom kill each other for scraps, "Paris's "Hannibal Lecture" boasts the sharpest lyric on the record. But he's got competition--from a retrofitted Jesse Jackson, from Professor Griff if you can believe that, even from reality TV 'ho Flavor Flav: "I'm in your mouth when you wake in the morning/I'm the stink on your breath when you're yawning." But mostly, of course, from Mistachuck, whose musicality carries the record--and who folded in a Katrina song after the CD was done. A-

How You Sell Soul to a Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul??? [Slamjamz, 2007]
Not only are their albums still good, they're getting better. Beats keep changing, too. Most of these are by the kind of heavy guitar-bass-drums unit Chuck D has coveted since Anthrax-the-band was bigger than anthrax-the-disease, and intermittently there are also uncredited horns, keyb effects, scratching and backup singers, like the child chorus who recites the message of "Sex, Drugs and Violence": "We like those gangsta rhymes/Just make sure they don't corrupt our minds/These rappers kill and thieve/A lot of times it's only make believe." Flav remains a knave on TV and the king's fool in PE. And though the title's moral braggadocio has been one of Chuck's more pigheaded tropes since he was dissing soaps, the Don Imus flap has imparted to him an aura of contemporaneity that comes none too soon. A-

The Peeps of Soulfunk: Tribb to JB [Slamjamz, 2007]
Chuck D or no Chuck D, an album of James Brown covers has built-in limitations, the inexhaustibility of the originals prominent among them. But the live band proves equal to Brown's grooves, and hip-hop established his adaptability long ago. So the record respects the man enough to interpret and even amend him. Here be prologues and scratches, a woman giving "Man's World" what for and an elementary-school girl reciting "King Heroin." Best of all, here be a "Make It Funky" that names as many of Mr. Brown's works and disciples as Chuck can fit in. B+

Most of My Heroes Still Don't Appear on No Stamp [Enemy, 2012]
After a decade-plus of preaching the singles gospel and trying to outsmart a digital music system he saw coming and secretly fears has no room for fiftysomethings, Chuck D gathers his forces for two albums released back-to-back--numbers five and six of the new millennium for all his singles talk, and like most of them, pretty damn good. This one's preferred because there's more Flav on it. Preacher Chuck needs William Drayton's nuttiness no matter how corrupt it's become, in part because its corruption is a corrective to all of Chuck's conceptualizing. Although young beatmakers echo the old Bomb Squad whomp, the preacher has lost some boom vocally, and like his cadences, the politics are old-school--a term he disparages, preferring "classic rap." But as he explains at length in "still necessary" liner notes unavailable from iTunes, which had an exclusive on this music for months before physicals became available from the evil empire of online everything, the times justify those old politics more than ever. A-

The Evil Empire of Everything [Enemy, 2012]
This is going along fine, politicizing indefatigably with cameo help from super-scratcher Davy DMX, saxophone pro Gerald Albright, Otis-channeling soul sister Sheila Brody, and Ziggy Marley 10,000 dutchies on, when finally, midway through, here comes some madman with the deeply stoopid "31 Flavors" and you realize it wasn't going along fine enough. Flav even contributes a superior Otis homage, about cars, and sells the irresistible "Broke Diva," in which Chuck joins an attack on gold-diggers I have the feeling Mrs. Chuck could do without. To compensate, the boss ropes the celebreality money-grubber into an attack on "Fame." B+

Man Plans God Laughs [Spitdigital, 2015]
Pained, somewhat congealed, they soldier on ("Give Peace a Damn," "Mine Again") *

Nothing Is Quick in the Desert [self-released, 2017]
Giving it away isn't phoning it in, but I wish their sharpest line had a song attached and find that Ice-T's scornful 16 cuts deeper than all of Chuck's gruff outrage ("If You Can't Join Em Beat Em," "SPEak!") **

What You Gonna Do When the Grid Goes Down? [Def Jam, 2020]
Loud though they've kept it, many don't realize that they've never stopped making good albums, so between this, their first Def Jam title of the century, and 2012's self-released Most of My Heroes Still Don't Appear on No Stamp is a closer call than you might think. The historical moment trashed in "State of the Union (STFU)" plus a host of committed cameos--George Clinton, Beastie Boys, Rapsody, Ice-T, Black Thought, Cypress Hill, it don't stop--is what seals the deal for the new one. But "State of the Union" isn't the album title because Chuck has bigger things on his mind as he always does: the dependence of everybody's world economy on an information system susceptible to attack from actors who could prove as dangerous as Donald Trump himself. Probably won't happen, you say? I agree while wondering how much wishful thinking slants my analysis. And second Chuck's one concrete piece of advice: read a book. My brutha! A-

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