At the tail end of the disco/early Prince-driven “ShoYoAss”, The Coup’s emcee Boots Riley boosts an old hook from Controversy, re-phrasing it slightly: “it’s introduction of a new breed of leaders / stand up and organize.” Where (until lately) Prince was always connecting liberation to sexuality, often in vague or mystical terms, the Coup speak literally of economic liberation, while riding a groove that’s sexy as hell. Pick a Bigger Weapon offers a constant call for new leaders who are willing to use whatever weapons are necessary to truly improve conditions for the poor and the down-trodden. Meanwhile, the weapons the Coup use are wit, frankness, storytelling, poetry, smooth soul music and raw funk.
Never underestimate the power of music. With each album the Coup’s lyrical messages come across stronger because the music has grown tighter, fuller, more alluring. The liner notes for Pick a Bigger Weapon list the group’s members as Boots Riley, DJ Pam the Funkstress, and “various friends with things that make noise.” In other words, this time they make particularly good use of a tight band, with deep bass, fiery guitar licks, a B-3 organ, and a horn section.
Overemphasizing the “live band” aspect of the album could be misinterpreted as privileging “real” instruments over turntables, samplers, and drum machines, all used here as well. But under-emphasizing the physical appeal of the deep soul and funk jams that the band conjures up would be way worse. At the start of “ShoYoAss” a woman says, “Ooh that’s it, that’s my song.” That is the feeling many of the songs here generate. There’s that ‘this is the jam’ feeling at the start of the track, whether it’s a Funkadelic-style blues-rock jam (“Captain Sterling’s Little Problem”), a sunny-day soul song (“I Love Boosters!”), or a quiet-storm crawl (“MindFuck”).
Musically this is the sexiest Coup album yet, a fact lyrically brought to the fore on a pair of songs that present sex and intimacy as a means of blissful escape from life’s harshness. R&B singer Silk-E’s sings the sultry and convincing slow jam “Baby Let’s Have a Baby Before Bush Do Somethin’ Crazy”, sounding completely sincere about what could be played as a joke. He also sings a breathless chorus which adds to the sweat-drenched atmosphere of “Ijustwannalayarounalldayinbedwithyou”, where Riley savors the details of love-making, in part to demonstrate just how precious every minute of time can be when you’re stuck living paycheck to paycheck.
The overriding theme of the Coup’s discography is the growing divide between the rich and the poor, and the multiple ways that the government and corporations work to keep people from questioning the status quo. Yet the temptation to brand them simply as “poltical rappers” ignores the human side of the music, how much Riley excels at telling stories of people which evoke the social issues of our time. The Coup isn’t trying to promote some issue-based political agenda. They’re trying to get people to rethink their assumptions, to question what’s expected of us and why. They’re crying ‘fuck the system’ as loudly as they can, and then telling sad, caring stories about the people that ‘the system’ screws over. On Pick a Bigger Weapon, those people include a girl whose attempt to meet societal beauty standards has tragic results, abandoned youth getting high to forget their troubles, older folk turning to religion for the same reason, women shoplifting so their clothes won’t look worse than everyone else (it’s OK, “most of it was made by children in Asia”), and teenagers becoming soldiers and being sent to Iraq (“war ain’t about one land against the next / it’s po people dyin’ so the rich cash checks”). There’s few musicians, or writers even, who so clearly express the human lives at stake when people in power make decisions.
Pick a Bigger Weapon further rounds out the portrait of life-without-money that the group has been writing since their first album, 1993’s Kill My Landlord. Here the Coup and their downtrodden characters seem more driven than ever to do something about societal inequities between the rich and the poor. After a brief intro track, “We Are the Ones” gets the album rolling with a proclamation to riot, to fight and “smash up yo place”. The chorus might be short on details, but the verses are filled with a detailed backstory. Delivered in a faux British accent that nods toward Slick Rick while mocking the rich and powerful, Riley takes the ‘trap-music’ craze of recent hip-hop and turns it inside out by articulating the economic realities behind the drug trade.
There’s a feeling of desperation to that song, and to “My Favorite Mutiny”, where Black Thought and Talib Kweli join Boots for both a rebellious, anti-government stance and an infectious hook. And even more so to the dense “Get That Monkey Off Your Back” and the fierce “Captain Sterling’s Little Problem”, where soldiers rebel against their superiors for sending them to another country to kill people they have no beef with. “All that fight for freedom shit / we know that shit is phoney,” they proclaim, “Free to work at Shoney’s / bout one hour for six boneys.”
Nearly every song is in some part a call for change. In the liner notes Boots frames the everyday fight to get by financially as part of the “daily struggle against a soulless system,” writing that these struggles need to be fought by everyone together, instead of individually. That liner notes essay is redundant if you’ve already listened to the album, as that wish is inherent in all of the songs. The album’s final track, “The Stand”, represents a final ultimatum. “Be happy all I did so far is drop a verse,” he proclaims, threatening to fight with all his might. He speaks of burning shit down, and you know he wants his words and music to have that power themselves. Earlier in the album, “MindFuck (A New Equation)” explicates this better. Over a down-and-dirty, slow groove Boots takes the hook from Dred Prez’s “Mind Sex” and, like he did with the Prince track, and turns it around to make the personal fiercely political. In his distinct slow drawl, but especially gently, he rhymes about how systems of repression work internally, how once we get conventions and expectations formed strongly in our brain there’s no need for overt, physical repression. And the converse as true too, new ways of thinking are what will change the world: “We bust / they feel the earth vibratin’ / it ain’t an earthquake / we just need a new equation.”