[24 August 2009]
In the early part of the aughts, Dead Prez came seemingly out of nowhere, guns blazing (figuratively and otherwise) with a brand of politically revolutionary hip-hop recalling Public Enemy. In 2001, while the Big Tymers were popularizing a glamorous and excessive portrait of hood culture, Dead Prez sharply exposed a violent counter-image, vividly depicting the streets as disillusioned, restless and hungry. Dead Prez garnered attention, however, not only for their incendiary politics, but also for the quickness and wit of their flows and the emotive power of their verses. Their first full-length, Let’s Get Free, was smart, subversive, and empowered. It could have you alternately nodding your head, pumping your fist, and shedding a tear. Unfortunately, Pulse of the People, Dead Prez’s latest offering, manages to achieve only a fraction of the impact of their older records, often sounding more like a simulation of a revolutionary lifestyle than the direct assault on capitalist culture that made their past records so groundbreaking.
On Pulse of the People, Dead Prez teams up with DJ Green Lantern to combine their “revolutionary but gangsta” philosophy with a new style of beat, larger and more rock-oriented, featuring raging guitars and bass-heavy synths. Wedding Dead Prez’s angry politics to loud, grungy beats should produce the perfect union, an intelligent take from the revolutionary left to fill the void in the post-Rage Against the Machine era. Unfortunately, the combination is little more than conceptually appealing. The sheer booming size of Lantern’s beats drown out much of Dead Prez’s smart lyricism and radical political message, while the lethargic tempos discourage their witty, fast flows. Not coincidentally, many of their most impressive past offerings have featured starkly minimalistic beats with high bar-counts that bring M1 and Stic.man’s acerbic rhymes to the forefront (“Hip Hop”, “Hell Yea”, “They Schools”). On Pulse of the People, the clunky, overpowering rock beats don’t allow for any of the fast-flowing, intricately-worded verses that made Dead Prez so good in the first place.
They do, however, score some limited successes on Pulse of the People. “$timulus Plan”, perhaps the best song on the album, effectively applies the Dead Prez mindset to recession-era economics, advocating DIY self-reliance in the face of a national crisis. While most of the other tracks are less lyrically impressive, Dead Prez does in instances recapture glimpses of the sharp wordplay they mastered on their prior releases. “When I learned that the blood in my veins came from kings / it curdled”, Stic.man raps on “Refuse to Lose”. Interestingly, however, Pulse of the People feels most inspired when Dead Prez deviates from their standard hustle-to-succeed fare. Back-to-back sweaty city summer jams “NYPD” and “Summer Time” are Foxy Brown-style takes on city life that briefly stray from revolutionary lines, nicely capturing “urban sunsets” and “house parties in the basement”. Lantern also occasionally hits the mark. His wily snake-charmer beat redeems “Afrika Hot!” while his heavy, head-nodding synths contribute muscle to the swaggering “Gangsta, Gangster”.
Many of the album’s remaining songs feel tired or out of place. As on Let’s Get Free, Pulse of the People includes the cringe-worthy token sex song. Here, on “My Dirty Valentine”, Stic.man inexplicably rhymes about Patron, hittin’ it from the back, and really big titties—exactly the oversexualized, message-devoid content for which Dead Prez lampoons commercial rap. Obviously, their revolutionary political ethos should not disentitle them from songs about love and sex, but it comes off as a particularly awkward role for the group. Songs like “My Dirty Valentine” highlight Dead Prez’s uncomfortable relationship with the mainstream rap community. While explicitly rejecting its values, the group is nevertheless forced to cater to its audience and conventions. At worst, “My Dirty Valentine” feels flatly hypocritical, and at best, totally random.
By no means a flop, Pulse of the People only feels disappointing in contrast to Dead Prez’s apex as the incisive, sinister conscience of the streets. Rehashing their older material, Pulse of the People proves respectably average. Sadly, it comes from a group that has always strived to be anything but.