The year was 1988, the group was Public Enemy and the album was It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, as incendiary a blast of politicized bile as had been spewed by any band since the Sex Pistols. Lead rapper Chuck D, whose band had made a smaller splash the previous year with the schematic Yo! Bum Rush the Show, took the socially conscious themes that characterized early Eighties tracks by Grandmaster Flash and gave them a jolt of adrenaline. Verbally, he came on like a cross between Malcolm X and Eldridge Cleaver; soundwise, his group (built on the expertise of DJ Terminator X and producer Hank Shocklee) used sirens, samples and pure mayhem to get D's messages across. The cut "Bring the Noise" wasn't a boast; it was a threat.
Now, six years later, PE has dropped Muse Sick N Hour Mess Age, an album that in many ways is just as fiery as Millions. But aside from a few white rock critics, no one seems to care.
The fault can't be laid entirely on Public Enemy's doorstep--but a lot of it should be. Chuck D (born Carlton Ridenhour) has always portrayed his group as an exemplar, an organization of young, strong African-American men who could help their peers achieve justice, honor and pride. But Chuck's dogma, barked with a tone that glows with equal parts self-confidence and self-righteousness, lost some of its punch when a number of incidents cracked PE's idealistic facade. In the late Eighties the act's Professor Griff was bounced from the collective for making anti-Semitic comments of the sort with which D himself previously had flirted. That was followed by Chuck's 1990 defense of homophobia (as he told an interviewer, "Love between men shouldn't involve sex") and a litany of legal problems for Flavor Flav, PE's official clown. Flav's hyperadolescent, clock-around-the-neck mugging no longer seems all that funny to those of us who've spent much of the past year watching news reports of him being led away in cuffs for crimes ranging from repeated traffic offenses to slapping his girlfriend around. Still, Chuck doesn't seem ready to subject Flav to the Professor Griff treatment; apparently the rock press, which pressured D into giving Griff his walking papers, is no longer intrigued enough by Public Enemy to turn up the heat.
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The reason for this waning interest has everything to do with success--and a lack thereof. While "Fight the Power," made for the Spike Lee film Do the Right Thing, and the quasi-novelty single "911 (Is a Joke)" moved plenty of units, 1990's Fear of a Black Planet, the following year's Apocalypse '91: The Enemy Strikes Black? and the more recent Greatest Misses, an aptly named odds-and-ends collection, never broke through. Meanwhile, a new generation of rap stars, exemplified by Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg, hit the financial jackpot on a grand scale. Many of these new stars were promoting values (mindless violence, misogyny, drunken sloth) that made even First Amendment types cringe, but they had one attribute that much of PE's work lacked: They were entertaining. Given the choice between dope-happy party time and another Chuck D lecture, the vast majority of hip-hop listeners opted for the party. Big surprise.
Rather than tempering his doctrine this time around, Chuck D has turned on his competitors. Muse Sick's "What Side You On?" is the most explicit attack; lines include "All in wit the law, they fall in/The great white hole where they/Be sellin' their soul/Never get enough/They be talkin' that roughneck shit/But when the cracka be comin' they quit." Elsewhere, in "So Whatcha Gone Do Now," Chuck criticizes "dat drive-by shit...dat gangsta shit" in a manner that implies the Ice Cubes of the world helped cause it, or at least capitalized on it.
These accusations may be true, of course, but Chuck's pissed-off, authoritarian tone is undermined by the sense that Public Enemy itself is merely treading water. In spite of a thickly layered production that includes bits of narration and random bursts of racket, the sound of Muse Sick is predictable, unsurprising. Nothing new is going on here; the formula remains intact. Flavor Flav's wacky bits on numbers such as "Godd Complex" seem like jokes you've heard one time too often, while Chuck's booming snootiness is almost defiantly one-dimensional. He's used this approach, with precious little change, for the better part of a decade now, and it's not wearing well. Too often on this album he's like the guest you want to leave as soon as he arrives.
Sure, there are intelligent, provocative comments here, but there's also nonsense about European countries taking over the global economy and a cut about AIDS ("Race Against Time") in which Chuck simply doesn't seem to know what he's talking about. On Muse Sick, he's preaching to the committed--and there seem to be fewer of those all the time.